China’s far western region of Xinjiang opened its largest ever trade fair yesterday, but a marked absence of Uighurs, who call the region home, underscored the challenge facing the government in addressing the root economic causes of unrest.
China has ramped up security in the regional capital, Urumqi, for the China Eurasia Expo, sending armed police units to patrol the city’s old quarter, heavily populated by Uighurs, which erupted in bloody ethnic violence two years ago that killed about 200 people.
Since 2009, Beijing has turned its attention to boosting development in Xinjiang and providing greater job opportunities for Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people, many of whom chafe at Chinese rule and restrictions on their culture.
“It’s very difficult being a Uighur-owned business,” said Weili Maimaitiaili of Dastur, an Urumqi-based maker of herbal tonics that employs just seven people.
The expo is part of ambitious plans to turn gritty and often polluted Urumqi into a trading hub between China and Central Asia, and hopefully address the economic disenfranchisement felt by Uighurs under the influx of majority Han Chinese migrants.
Walking around the nearly 8km2 expo site, centered on a vast exhibition hall in a remote northern part of Urumqi, what most stands out most amongst the gray officials and the gleaming machinery is a lack of Uighur business people.
“Look around — there are hardly any of us here,” Maimaitiaili said in slightly accented Mandarin. “We have no money for advertising and cannot even think about marketing anywhere outside of Xinjiang at the moment. Most of the Xinjiang companies you see here are owned by Han.”
Other Uighurs at the expo appeared to be either reporters for state-owned media or government officials.
At the stand for Kashgar, an old Silk Road city in southern Xinjiang, officials struggled to find a single Uighur to talk to the media.
“We’ve got lots more people coming, including Uighur compatriots. Everyone has been stuck in traffic jams caused by all the extra security today,” said Jia Tingyi, an ethnic Han from a remote Kashgar county.
Others said they thought recent violence in Kashgar, as well as the nearby city of Hotan, and reports of thwarted attacks on the Urumqi trade fair had made the government nervous about letting too many Uighurs attend.
“You’d have thought there would be more of us here. It is supposed to be our autonomous region,” said one Uighur official, who asked not to be identified, citing the sensitivity of the situation. “It’s probably the recent events.”
Government leaders have lauded the expo as leverage for economic development.
Nur Bekri, Xinjiang’s governor and a Uighur himself, was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying the event had “important meaning for promoting Xinjiang’s development.”
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, guest of honor at the opening ceremony, said it was important to remember the economic causes of terrorism.
“Poverty and economic injustice are closely linked to terrorism. Pakistan understands this relationship perhaps better than any other country,” he told an audience that included Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克強).
Still, the Uighur entrepreneurs who did speak to reporters said the government was starting to make it easier for them to operate and was actively supporting their development.
“It used to be almost impossible to get bank loans,” said Ayxam Yiming, a manager at Xingbao Fruit Products, a “proudly Uighur” maker of preserved and dried fruit from southern Xinjiang’s Korla region.
“It’s much better now. Xinjiang’s leadership is very focused on agricultural products and our quality is top notch,” she said, noting that almost all her company’s staff were Uighur.
Asked to point out the other Uighur-owned companies in the food products section of the exhibition hall, she looked puzzled.
“I think there’s one behind us, though I’ve not seen anyone in the booth yet,” she said. “We Uighur companies are quite a rare sight here.”
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