Unrest in China Forces Many Minorities to Leave Restive Western City

More than 150 people have been killed in rioting in China's northwestern Xinjiang region, with the government blaming exiled separatists for the traditionally Muslim area's worst case of unrest in years.
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 9, 2009

URUMQI, China, July 9 -- A few steps past the shattered glass, warped metal and other remains of a Muslim Uighur restaurant, Ye Erkeng and his family are in hiding.

Ye, his wife, younger brother, sister-in-law, niece and mother have not ventured outside their apartment complex for three days. They have been getting by on stale bread and boiled water.

After bloody clashes between Uighur demonstrators and government security forces began Sunday in Urumqi, capital of the far western region of Xinjiang, Ye said he did not want to risk having his family members on the streets. But around 11 p.m. Tuesday, a mob of several hundred Han Chinese carrying sticks, hammers and bricks ransacked the restaurant in front of Ye's apartment as he and his family huddled inside, praying.

"I thought, 'If they rush into the house, we will all die,' " Ye said.

Letting Go of Dreams

Ye's family is among the many in Urumqi that find themselves at an unexpected crossroads in the aftermath of this week's violence, which has claimed at least 156 lives. Terrified of their Han neighbors, but accustomed to the comforts of the city they have made their home, they must weigh the benefits of staying in a place where they no longer feel welcome or returning to a countryside where their salaries will probably be reduced by half. On Wednesday, Ye and his wife, Mu Heti, made the painful decision to go back to the countryside of Ili in northern Xinjiang, joining an exodus of ethnic minorities out of Urumqi that has overwhelmed bus and train stations in recent days.

Before Tuesday night, Ye said, he thought that the violence would pass quickly and that life in Urumqi would return to normal. Ye, 40, who is Kazakh, and Mu, 36, who is Uighur, and their extended families have been in the city for eight years while he worked as a Chinese-Russian translator. The family members had settled into a life they loved.

In a good month, Ye could make as much as 3,000 yuan, or about $450, a small fortune considering that his whole family had been barely able to eke out $75 a month farming sunflowers and cotton in his home town. But their enchantment with Urumqi went further than money.

Ye had picked up the Han Chinese love of mah-jongg, a traditional game involving tiles that is similar to rummy, and had a regular competition going with friends. Mu loved to sit on the street with friends, drinking tea and watching the city's bustle.

Ye's niece, 12-year-old Ye Ziyang, was the only minority student at one of the top elementary schools in the city and had made friends with Han children whose ambitions went far beyond those of her peers in the countryside. Ziyang was learning English, and she often spoke of going to college and becoming a doctor.

But all that now seemed distant, Ye and Mu said, in light of the violence. Tensions between China's dominant Han population and people native to Xinjiang -- mostly Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking group, and Kazakhs, who are concentrated on the border with Kazakhstan, are mostly Muslim and speak their own Turkic language -- have existed since Chinese troops rolled into Xinjiang 60 years ago.

China has repeatedly said that it "liberated" the population, but many Uighurs and Kazakhs complain of government policies that they say are meant to wipe out their language, culture and religion in the name of assimilation.

The complaints are similar to those of Tibetans, another of China's 56 officially recognized ethnic minorities. In March 2008, Tibet erupted into protests against Chinese rule that spilled into violence. Like the Tibetans last year, Uighurs have complained that the government has practiced a double standard in how it deals with the perpetrators of violence -- detaining Uighurs in large numbers, while allowing Han Chinese to go free.

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