Getting over it
Published: Jul 04, 2011 08:55 PM Updated: Jul 04, 2011 08:56 PM
A Uyghur family leaving the International Grand Bazaar. Photo: Lin Meilian

Two years after deadly riots in Urumqi shocked the nation and the world, the capital of northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region appears to be a model of peace and stability, held together by increased security measures and improving living conditions.  

The People’s Square, the scene of demonstrations on this date two years ago, and which was closed for renovations last year, is now a well-used center for culture and leisure activities. 

Hundreds of citizens gather on the square to do their daily exercise and dance, while children roller skate in the cool evening air.

Every evening, some 200 elderly people turn the People’s Square into a dance floor featuring traditional songs of the Uyghur. 

“Here in Xinjiang, songs of the Uyghurs are our songs, we love dancing to them,” said Yin Guichun, a 60-year-old retired teacher. 

The traditional Uyghur music blaring from portable music players attracts a lot of onlookers as people sit and watch or get up and participate.  “Uyghur dancing is making a comeback. Tango and cha-cha make way for Uyghur dance,” said Ailijiang, a Uyghur businessman as he danced on the square.

Cold beer and kabobs

Even well into the night the city appears stable as outdoor food markets fill with patrons enjoying cold beer, traditional barbequed kabobs and hearty laughter. 

Meanwhile, the city’s landmark shopping mall, the International Grand Bazaar, where most of the destructive rioting occurred, is now packed with both domestic and foreign tourists. 

More than security and surveillance  

The increased number of armed police patrolling downtown streets seems to be one of the only reminders that there was an ugly episode of violence that took the lives of 197 people. 

To help guarantee peace in the city, some 40,000 surveillance cameras have also been installed on buses, in schools, supermarkets and on the streets.  

Yet Urumqi’s mayor, Jierla Yishamuding, recognizes that more enforcement and better surveillance are only part of the solution. He told the media last year that “stability fundamentally depends on the continuous improvement of people’s livelihoods.”
Jierla’s administration has plans to spend 300 billion yuan ($ 44 billion) over the next five years building 11 new residential areas. Hundreds of shantytowns will be cleared and new homes will be built for 200,000 people, almost a third of which will be for ethnic minorities who currently make up about 30 percent of the city’s population.  

Urumqi is also hoping to create a more ethnically integrated city by erasing the traditional north-south divide that has separated Han neighborhoods from those of the Uyghur and the Hui. 

The municipal government said more than 6,100 families moved into new dwellings in the first six months of this year. 

Yet there is a feeling of nervousness in the city that remains on the lookout for any sign of trouble. 

Wang Wenhua, deputy head of the city’s department in charge of ensuring stability, has been putting in many hours at his office which contains a sofa for daytime visitors and turns into a bed at night. 

“We try our best to keep everything under control and provide a stable environment,” he said. “Meanwhile, we are on constant alert. If anything happens, we are able to  quickly take control.” 

Prepared for anything

With the approach of the second anniversary of riots which injured almost 1,700 people, Wang said they are well prepared to handle any emergency. 

He Weifang, law professor at Peking University who worked at the Shihezi University in Xinjiang from 2009 to 2011, said the region is “over-emphasizing stability preservation.”

“It’s understandable that stability is very important for a complex place like Xinjiang. But if the government over-emphasizes stability preservation, it might misread some message and overact,” he was quoted by Phoenix TV as saying. “In this case, it might fuel tension between Han and Uyghur people,” he added.  Most of those who died in the 2009 riots were Han. 

Asked about He’s assertions, Wang said he agreed with most of it. “I agree with part of his opinion. Indeed, Xinjiang is a complicated place and it is very important to keep it stable, but if you look at the big picture, you will understand we are not over-emphasizing stability.”

Positioned at the crossroads of central Asia, Xinjiang shares a boarder with eight countries, a number of which are at war with terrorists.  

Regional security budge doubled

The regional government nearly doubled its security budget in 2010. It said it planned to spend 2.89 billion yuan, up 87.9 percent over the previous year, according to the government’s budget proposal released last year.

Some reports suggest the death of Bin Laden might create unrest in Xinjiang as east Turkistan terrorists have reportedly returned to the region.

“There is no way that these terrorists can get in and out of China so easily,” said Wang the deputy head in charge of stability. 

The region has demonstrated it will not tolerate lawbreakers. Nine people who were found guilty of instigating the July, 2009 riots have been executed, and 26 others have received death sentences, according to local courts.  
Ni Shirong left Xinjiang 24 years ago at the end of his tour of duty as a soldier. Now the 71-year-old and his wife have returned as tourists. 

“I can barely recognize this place,” he said looking into the distance. “Those used to be shanties and dirt roads. The old Xinjiang only exists in my memory now.”

Ni and his wife are part of a tour group that has stopped at the must-see shopping mall, the International Grand Bazaar. Four tour buses jam the mall’s parking area.

Tourists shopping inside the International Grand Bazaar. Photo: Lin Meilian

Tourist return in droves

The riots took a heavy toll on Xinjiang’s tourism. About 1,450 tour groups, that would have brought 84,000 travelers, including 4,000 from overseas, cancelled their trips to Xinjiang, after the riots. The number of domestic tourists dropped about 26 percent to 1.3 million.

Now the tourists are back. According to the Xinjiang Tourism Administration, in the first six months of 2011, Xinjiang has hosted more than 13 million domestic tourists who have spent over 12 billion yuan, increases of 33 percent and 37 percent relatively over the same period last year. 

In June alone, the region attracted more than 132,031 tourists from overseas, up 24 percent over the same period in 2010. 

Still, Amina Tailait, a Uyghur woman who sells handcrafts at the shopping mall, complains about business. 

“Yes, a lot of tourists come and go, come and go. They are all looking, no one is buying,” she said.

Zhu Jun, who runs a souvenir shop, voiced the same concerns. “Traveling in Xinjiang must be more expensive than in other Southeast Asian countries, maybe people need to save money by not shopping.” 

What bothers and worries Yinamu Nailierding, director of the tourist administration is the lack of toilets to accommodate the increasing number of tourists.

“I often hear tourists saying that everything is good in Xinjiang. The weather is good, the food is good, people are nice, only the toilets are terrible, stinky and hard to find,” he said.

Yinamu said everyone in the tourist business is working for the same goal. “As minorities we might look different from each other, but we are all of same at heart. We all want to show the best of Xinjiang to the tourists,” he said.

Life beyond Xinjiang

Awaguli, 24, a senior student of Xinjiang University majoring in chemical engineering, sighed slightly while having lunch at a canteen. She barely finished half of her meal. 

She is trying to decide whether to go back to work in her hometown Turpan, a town on the ancient Silk Road, or stay in Urumqi to work, which her parents oppose.

Most of her classmates have landed jobs in factories. She said she wants to work in other provinces and experience other places in the country. 

“I want to see the world outside of Xinjiang, but my parents worry that I won’t fit in. I’m confused,” she said.

People from Xinjiang are traveling more broadly and working in disparate parts of the country. About 150,000 leave Xinjiang and relocate in coastal cities each year, according to region’s Development and Reform Commission. 

Language and skills training

Many Uyghur people appear ethnically different than Han Chinese and Mandarin is often their second language.

These differences have not always produced good results.  In 2009 a brawl at a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province between Han and Uyghur people was reported to have led to the July riot. 

To help Uyghur people better adjust to society outside of Xinjiang, the government has set up language and skills training courses.  

At a national conference on “pairing” with Xinjiang held in Beijing in May, the central government pledged to promote further development in Xinjiang, saying improving the lives of residents was a high priority.

He Guoqiang, a Politburo Standing Committee member of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, urged local officials to allow Xinjiang’s ethnic population to share in the region’s achievements during a tour of Xinjiang in June.

“We should thank the ethnic groups of Xinjiang for their contribution in developing Xinjiang and stabilizing China’s frontier,” he was quoted by Xinhua as saying.