Wednesday, July 8, 2009

China's Urumqi divided along tense ethnic lines


The flashpoint city of Urumqi has become China's Baghdad, a fearful resident said, as thousands of troops draw a line in the sand to prevent new ethnic unrest between the Han and Uighur people.

A demarcation line was set up along Renmin Road, the east-west artery through the city where troops carrying semi-automatic machine guns and heavy batons cut the city in half to separate the two communities.

Thousands of Han Chinese, armed with clubs, metal pipes and blunt weapons, had crossed the road the day before seeking revenge against Muslim Uighurs after riots Sunday.

Residents welcomed the security but many, especially Uighurs, expressed fears for the future.

"I'm afraid there will be more violence," said a Uighur man named Ali, who was allowed through security along with many other Uighurs to head home after spending a tense night at his workplace on the north side of the boundary.

"There was too much hatred around now. The future looks bad."

He also expressed fear about going home because of reports circulating among Uighurs that Chinese police were breaking into Uighur homes to arrest suspected rioters from Sunday.

The Han are China's dominant ethnic group, making up 91.5 percent of the nation's 1.3 billion people, according to the latest government figures.

But in Xinjiang, a vast region of deserts and mountains bordering Central Asia, eight million Turkic-speaking Uighurs make up nearly half the population.

Uighurs have consistently complained about discrimination and repression under communist Chinese rule over the past 60 years, accusations the government denies.

Many Han people also felt the dividing line between the two sides in Urumqi would likely last a long time, in a figurative if not physical sense.

"This will be very difficult to resolve. There is a lot of bad blood now because of the Uighurs," said Chen Xiping, 32.

"We needed this security because Urumqi has become our Baghdad."

But other Han were more optimistic.

"We will return to normal soon. I'm confident," said a Han man named Run as he watched army trucks rumbling along Renmin Road.

"This week we have seen the worst violence in Urumqi in 60 years. That shows that we basically have stability between the people."

However, illustrating the ethnic division, he rejected Uighur accusations of political, religious and cultural oppression by China.

"No, no, no, that's nonsense," he said.

"There is religious freedom and cultural freedom in China. They have as much freedom as we do."

But a Uighur eye doctor named Halisha said that type of attitude was one of the reasons behind the recent unrest.

"The Uighur people are always kept down by Chinese. So there will continue to be anger," said Halisha, who spent Tuesday night in his clinic in the Uighur district because he could not return to his home north of the security line.

July 8, 2009 - 4:02PM

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