As violence rises in Xinjiang, Han residents no longer feel at home

By Lin Meilian Source:Global Times Published: 2014-3-12 20:28:00

Passengers pack a carriage of a train from Kuytun, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, to Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, on January 20. Photo: IC

His earliest memory about Xinjiang was a knife he found under his father's pillow when he was little. It was the size of a 12-inch laptop. No sheath. He was stunned and cried immediately.

The adults soon came and calmed him down. They told him "it is a normal thing because some Uyghur people might come to steal things and kill people."

It was way back in the 1970s when a Xinjiang resident, who only identified himself as Chen, was brought to meet his father in Kashi, or Kashgar, in southern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which is now home to about 700,000 people, over 80 percent of whom are Muslim Uyghur.

Chen's impression of Xinjiang was forever linked with that knife. But as he grew up with Uyghur kids, he found that people from all ethnic groups actually got along quite well.

"We fought and then we made up. No one made a big deal. We all got used to it," he said.

China's far west Xinjiang, the biggest administrative region by land area, is home to 22 million people, up to 46 percent of whom are Muslim Uyghur, followed by 39 percent Han and 7 percent Kazakh. It is also the most ethnically troubled area as violence was already on the rise in the 1990s.

Life there has changed. Armed police patrol the streets; anxiety and rumors quickly spread; the atmosphere is tense. The idea of leaving Xinjiang has started bubbling up in the minds of some Han people.

Chen left Xinjiang for school in the 1990s. Every time he went back to Kashi he noticed changes: people are getting richer. The city is getting dirtier. His father moved from the northern part of the city to the southern part where most of the Han people live.

"Now the older generation tell you they still fight, but they don't make up like they used to, something has changed, something dark," he said.

The last time Chen visited Kashi was in 2000 when all of his Han relatives moved out of Xinjiang.

To stay or go? That question seems hard to answer for many Han.

Strained relations

Xinjiang has been a multi-ethnic region since ancient times. The Han population saw an increase after the establishment of the State-run Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps in 1954 in the region, a move to consolidate border defense and accelerate local economic development.

The number of Han jumped from 7 percent to over 40 percent in late 1970s. It slightly declined when the family planning policy was introduced for Han in the 1980s. Han couples were only allowed to have one child while ethnic families were allowed to give birth to two or more. In recent years it has stood at around 40 percent.

Most Han inhabit live in the northern part of Xinjiang where the natural conditions are better while native Uyghurs stay in the southern part where most of them make their living via agriculture.

Over the years, Xinjiang's economic development has heavily relied on Han migrants, which makes ethnic minorities feel disadvantaged and escalates inter-ethnic tensions. From some Uyghurs' point of view, they see Han taking over their abundant oil and gas reserves; Han complain that government policies favor ethnic minorities in terms of family planning, college admissions and job recruitment.

"When I was little, I heard Uyghur kids yelling at me saying 'get out of Xinjiang.' I told the adults but they just laughed," Chen said.

It wasn't long before people both inside and outside of Xinjiang began to take it seriously. In 2009, a riot that killed over 200 people in the capital Urumqi put this remote region in international headlines.

The riots ended up dividing the capital into two parts. In fear of being attacked, many Han sold their houses and moved out from southern part of the city which is dominated by Uyghurs, and is where the riots happened.

Moreover, Han are rarely seen walking alone on the streets in the southern part of the city. Local taxi drivers suggest Han tourists avoid shopping at the bazaar for their own safety.

"There is nothing the local government can do as it is people's freedom to live wherever they want," Pan Zhiping, director of the Institute of Central Asia at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.

Pan suggests that the local government should create jobs for the Han in the southern part of the city to lure them to move in, a move to follow Singapore's model of different ethnic minorities living together.

Rift widening?

However, the gap between Han and Uyghurs appears to be widening, with more and more instances of inter-ethnic violence occurring. The older generation of migrants are more likely to stay as they feel at home in Xinjiang, but younger people prefer to seek opportunities outside of the region.

Wang Jianguo, a teacher in Urumqi, who moved to Xinjiang from the northern part of the country in 1994, has been living away from his wife and son for six years. His 15-year-old son is now attending high school in Beijing where he visits him a few times a year.

"To be honest, when he grows up, I won't advise him to come back," Wang told the Global Times.

Back in the 1990s, students whose hukou, or household registration, was in Xinjiang needed a permit from local education bureau to work outside of the area. But now many who attend school in other provinces would rather not go home.

In 2013 alone, the number of riots was horrifying. In June, a total of 24 people were killed during a violent terrorist attack in a remote town in Turpan Prefecture, followed by 11 assailants who were shot dead in Bachu, Kashi after they killed two police officers in November, and one month later, another 14 terrorists were killed as police busted an organized terrorist attack in Shufu, Kashi.

"The restless situation has become the main concern stopping young people from going home," Wang said.

Another Han resident who refused to be named told the Global Times that in rural villages there are only elderly Han left. Originally from Shihezi, in the northern part of Xinjiang, he said he has seen a rapid increase in the population of Uyghur people in his village as they enjoy favorable policies in terms of family planning, while at least half of the Han population has moved out.

"I can't imagine what my village will look like in 30 years, I am not sure if I will want to go back then," he said.

However, the older generations have more important reasons to stay. "Scaring millions of people out from their hometown via terror attacks? That is just the delusional thinking of some Eastern Turkistan terrorists," remarked Zhang Tuizong, a second generation Han migrant.

Originally from Guangdong Province, Zhang was born in Changji city of northern Xinjiang. His parents left home for Xinjiang in their 20s. He went to school outside Xinjiang but all his relatives are still living there.

"Home is where I was born, I am a Xinjianger," he said. "The problem in Xinjiang is how to get along with other ethnic minorities, leaving Xinjiang won't solve the problem."

Discrimination concerns

Ironically, when it comes to the term "Xinjianger", many people outside the region have this misunderstanding that there are only Uyghur people in Xinjiang. In recent years, cases involving Uyghur street children in other regions - often the victims of human trafficking - involved in pickpocketing have left a bad impression.

Many Han people from Xinjiang said they have been treated like "second class" citizens outside Xinjiang. Some of them have experienced rejection from hotels, others find they are discriminated against when applying for jobs.

Another attack that happened earlier this month, when a group of knife-wielding Uyghurs stabbed 29 people to death at the railway station in Kunming, again put this restless region under a spotlight.

"The Kunming attack has triggered another round of discrimination against people from Xinjiang," Zhang Lijuan, a professor of Marxism at Xinjiang Normal University, told the Global Times. "We know how they feel because we have been through the same riots, but they can't live in denial."

Posts even circulated on the Internet saying that if anyone spots people from Xinjiang around their neighborhood they should call the police.

To correct the image of Han in Xinjiang, the latest issue of Vista Magazine explored the theme of "the Xinjiang people around us" by interviewing well-known celebrities who are originally from Xinjiang.

Zhang said "Xinjiangers" should have more confidence. "We should have faith in this land; all the people together in Xinjiang will make it a safer and more comfortable home."

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