The five-star hotels are full, bulldozers are making quick work of dreary slums and billboards for “French-style villas” call out to the nouveau riche. In the year since rioting between the Han and Uighur ethnic groups killed nearly 200 people in this city in far western China, life appears to be returning to normal.
“Don’t worry, everything is peaceful now,” said the perky bellhop at a hotel in the city’s predominantly Han Chinese quarter.
But before turning away, he had second thoughts.
“You’d better not go to the Uighur part of town at night,” he said.
Beneath the gloss and mercantile buzz of Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, there is a palpable unease that neither tens of thousands of surveillance cameras nor the patrolling squads of black-shirted police officers can completely assuage.
Since July last year, when rampaging Uighur mobs set upon Han Chinese with iron bars and bricks — a scene that was reversed for several days when Han vigilantes sought revenge — the Chinese authorities have arrested hundreds and tried to soothe frayed nerves with a US$1.5 billion spending package, a change in local leadership and a barrage of uplifting slogans strung across public buses and highway overpasses.
However, the feel-good propaganda and revved-up economy have so far done little to repair the mutual distrust. And experts say the government’s “strike hard” campaign, which has led to the secret detention of perceived troublemakers and the execution of at least nine people accused of having a hand in the bloodshed, has worsened tensions.
“I don’t think a single Uighur is convinced that the government is acting in their interests,” said Dru Gladney, a professor of Asian studies at Pomona College in California who studies the region. “In fact, the hostile environment is making people feel embattled and resentful.”
Given the heightened surveillance, it is not always easy to tease out unvarnished sentiments from either the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority, or the Han, who make up 96 percent of China’s population. But with patience and the promise of anonymity, raw resentments emerge.
Take the Han Chinese owner of a small restaurant who initially described Uighurs as “part of our family” but later allowed that he found the vast majority of them frightening, untrustworthy and “savage.”
The man, who would give only his surname, Zhou, said he stopped riding buses in Urumqi last fall after the city was swept by tales of Uighurs jabbing Han with HIV-infected hypodermic needles. The police initially detained more than a dozen people in the attacks but later dismissed suggestions that the needles were contaminated.
Like the hundreds of thousands of Han who migrate to Xinjiang each year, Zhou, who left Sichuan Province in 2004, said he was partly inspired by the notion that he was helping to “open up” western China. Although he grew up learning that the Uighurs were Chinese and part of the country’s happy kaleidoscope of 56 ethnicities, he said he quickly discovered otherwise.
“We just don’t have much in common,” he said with a wary glance around him. “And what’s worse is they don’t appreciate what we’ve done for them.”
Much as it did in Tibet, in an effort to pacify another restive ethnic region, the government has spent huge sums of money to try to help Xinjiang’s economy catch up to eastern China, where income and production are on average twice as high. In May, the Chinese Communist Party announced the first leg of its “Love the Great Motherland, Build a Beautiful Homeland” initiative, which will include six new airports and 8,000 more kilometers of rail line linking the far-flung cities in this Alaska-size region of desert and mountains.