Ethnic Unrest in Xinjiang Uighurs Lament their Lost Homeland

Part 2: 'We Live From Hand to Mouth'


The current crisis began in a toy factory in the southern province of Guangdong. On June 26, violence erupted between Han Chinese and Uighur migrant workers at the factory, in the wake of a rumor that Uighurs had raped Han Chinese women. Two Uighurs were killed in the fighting.

The rumor was apparently false and now the Uighurs have become deeply mistrustful. "We don't believe the reports in the press," says Hairegul, the student in Urumqi. "We had heard that 200 people were killed, not two. That was why the students took to the streets."

Anyone who hopes to uncover the roots of the friction should travel to two Urumqi neighborhoods. One is the bitterly poor area along Dawan South Street, where men are slaughtering two sheep in a small market and where veiled women dart through narrow side streets.

The residents are from places like Kuqa, Aksu and small oases bordering the Taklamakan Desert, where they were no longer able to eke out an existence as farmers. Their world was turned upside down and factories now stand where they once tilled the land. Unable to make a living in the countryside, many have come to the capital to look for work -- though their prospects are slim.

One vendor opened a small shop on one of the street corners a few weeks ago with his family's accumulated savings. He sells household goods, including pots, toothpaste and honey. A few telephones are displayed in his shop, in a place where no one can even afford to buy a mobile phone. A woman in a black caftan covering everything but her eyes sits at the cash register. The couple has a young son and the family lives behind a pink curtain in the shop. "We pay 600 yuan a month in rent, and then there are the expenses, but I haven't made a profit yet," says the shopkeeper. 600 yuan is about €60 ($84).

"Hardly any of us have work," says a tailor as he walks into the shop. "We live from hand to mouth. There are factories here with thousands of workers, and not one of them is a Uighur."

Two car dealerships across the street were burned down on Sunday. The owner is a Muslim, and so were the arsonists. For several days in a row, soldiers and policemen came to the neighborhood at night and dragged off dozens of men and adolescents.

'We Are Faster and Better Educated'

The second neighborhood is in the brown hills in the southern part of Urumqi, where large slums have sprung up in recent years. Some of the dwellings are nothing but crude wooden shacks. Uighurs from the oases and Chinese immigrants live in these crowded slums.

Uniformed men in steel helmets stand guard at the entrance to a small street market, where there have also been killings. Members of the two ethnic groups attacked one another, although no one knows who initiated the violence. Mrs. Tian is from Sichuan Province. She sells hard liquor from large clay jars, in a shop called "For Calming."

"The Uighurs complain that we took away their homeland," she says. "And they're right. Most of the vendors in this market are now Han Chinese. We are faster and better educated. The Uighurs have trouble with the Chinese language."

The Han Chinese make up about 92 percent of China's population, which also comprises 55 ethnic minorities, including the Muslim Uighurs, who feel marginalized.

Up to two million Han Chinese have moved to Xinjiang since the 1990s. For the new settlers, who see Xinjiang as simply another part of the People's Republic, this is perfectly normal. However, a Beijing observer characterizes the migration as a "Palestinization" of the region. The Han Chinese, he says, behave like colonial masters, forcing local residents to switch to Beijing time, even though the sun rises two hours later in faraway Urumqi.

Clamping Down on the 'Three Forces'

Fearing that Xinjiang could become a hotbed for Muslim terrorists seeking to use violence to secure independence for an "East Turkistan," the Communist Party has clamped down in the past few years, particularly with a recent campaign against what it calls the "three forces" -- terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. Those who criticize the government risk being imprisoned on charges of separatism or terrorism.

In the modern city of Urumqi, more and more Uighur women have taken to wearing veils, even though this deprives them of any opportunity to find work. A woman, speaking flawless Chinese, says that she once worked in a telephone shop, until she was fired after being told to choose between her veil and her job.

Under these circumstances, the Muslim residents of Urumqi are becoming increasingly enraged at being treated like strangers in their own homeland. Many feel that they are misused as colorful traditional dancers and singers, and only valued when Beijing wants to demonstrate how harmoniously the ethnic groups in the People's Republic can live together.

What happens next, after the tragedy of Urumqi? "I want things to be the way they used to be," says Wang, the music student. "But things should also be more just," says her fellow student Hairegul, the Uighur.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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