Author: By Clifford Coonan in Urumqi
There are 50,000 Chinese workers in Algeria and Chinese projects are spread across north-west Africa.
The security presence in Urumqi is overwhelming. Hundreds of People’s Armed Police patrol the area where, on 5 July, crowds of Uighur protesters attacked Han Chinese, who make up more than 90 per cent of the nation’s population. The rioters smashed shops and set fire to buses.
Many of the police on the streets carry clubs, some studded with nails. Others hold shields and steel bars with sharpened tips. Frontline riot police wear body armour and carry machine guns, pump-action shotguns or AK-47s with drawn bayonets. The intention of the forces is to pacify but the situation remains extremely tense, with tales of horror on both sides of the ethnic divide. One small incident, one senses, and the city could explode into violence again.
The 5 July attacks were followed two days later by revenge raids when thousands of Han took to the streets armed with machetes and steel bars.
The Chinese authorities say 184 people have died in the violence, in the worst unrest in China for decades. Two Uighurs were shot dead by police on Monday, the first time police have admitted killing people in the city.
People are wary of talking to foreign media, but those willing to speak claim the violence came out of nowhere.
“I was born in Xinjiang, my family lives here, and although we are Han Chinese, our Uighur neighbours always treated us well,” said a doctor surnamed Zhang, who was playing with her son on the street.
“This was a safe place. This riot on 5 July was unexpected. Our good life here has been ruined. Since this riot, my ability to trust Uighur strangers has evaporated.”
A 20-year-old Uighur student who gave her Chinese name, Xiati Guli, said: “When the riot happened, I was taking an exam in university. I do not understand how or why this riot happened. The relationship between us Uighurs and the Han Chinese used to be good. Since the riot, every time I see Han Chinese, I feel very sorry for them in my heart.”
Despite her moderate tone, there is a broader sense that young Uighurs are steadily becoming radicalised. Uighurs account for nine million of Xinjiang’s 20 million residents and they are angry about the influx of Han Chinese into the region.
They feel the region’s resources are being exploited without enough payback, a charge that China denies. And they accuse the Han of discrimination and of trying to erase the Uighur language and culture.
The focus of much of the Beijing government’s wrath has been on the exiled Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer, whom the Chinese blame for inciting the riot. At one point yesterday, a convoy of police vehicles passed down the street with loudspeakers blaring out insulting slogans aimed at Ms Kadeer. Chinese newspapers underlined parallels with last year’s violence in Tibet, running photographs yesterday of Ms Kadeer meeting the Dalai Lama.
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