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In Wake of Turmoil In China, Minorities Face Painful Options
Many Abandoning Lives They Loved

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.

The Xinjiang region in recent years has experienced a large influx of Han Chinese lured by the government's ambitious Develop the West program, which seeks to duplicate the success of the wealthier coastal areas. As a result, the region's Han population has jumped from 6 percent in 1949 to more than 40 percent in 2000, according to the last census. The initiative has boosted incomes all around, but it has also set up an uncomfortable hierarchy. Many of the new bosses are Han, while the workers are from minority groups.

The bloody riots on Sunday show just how deep the mistrust between Han Chinese and other ethnic groups runs, and how quickly a seemingly minor disagreement can escalate. The violence began with a false Internet rumor about the rape of two Han women by Uighur workers. That led to a fight in a toy factory in the southern Chinese city of Shaoguan that left two Uighurs dead.

The investigation into the workers' deaths, which some Uighurs felt was inadequate, sparked a demonstration in Urumqi on Sunday. The protest spun out of control as paramilitary troops fired on protesters and rioters torched cars and businesses. A number of Han bystanders said they were attacked without provocation. Two days later, violence broke out as vigilante Han groups launched retaliatory attacks on Uighurs.

The Chinese government has said that the situation in Urumqi is now under control. But it will take much longer to repair the psychological damage that the ethnically charged violence has wrought on local residents.

Fear on Both Sides

The five-story complex where Ye and Mu live -- complete with its leaks, cracked cement and creaky doors -- earlier housed 100 Uighur and Kazakh residents, who had come to Urumqi in search of a better life. Now all but 25 are gone. They have fled to parts of Xinjiang where Hans are fewer in number. Still, Ye has compassion for his Han neighbors.

"It isn't just us who are scared of what's going on. Hans are also scared," Ye said. On Tuesday night, he said, he welcomed several Han women who needed refuge from the mob-fueled violence. As it turned out, everyone inside got lucky. The attackers moved on.

Some Uighur neighbors were not as fortunate. A 25-year-old who gave his name as Abu Budu said he was taking a walk with his older brother when he was suddenly surrounded by a Han Chinese mob.

He said he heard one man in the crowd tell the others not to beat the Uighurs, but then felt a blow to his head and lost consciousness. He woke up at the hospital with gashes across his back, a concussion and so many bruises on his face that it had turned black. He said he is being kept in a different ward from his brother and has been given no information about his condition. "They beat me without any reason," he said.

At dawn Wednesday, people began packing to leave. Most took only small shopping bags, leaving furniture and other expensive but bulky items behind. But Ye and Mu's family was stuck. They could not walk because Ye's mother is nearly blind, and they could not find a taxi driver willing to take minorities across the city to the Uighur area.

Mu said she is angry not only at the Han Chinese who turned violent, but also at the Uighurs who did the same, leaving families like hers with few options.

Ye tried to reassure his family members about their future in the countryside.

"Life there will be all right," he said. "It's a small place and more peaceful. We will just do labor work and farm."

Outside, the destruction of the one-room Uighur restaurant was drawing curious Han passersby. Several men armed with sticks stood on the sidewalk across the street from the restaurant, a few meters from the door to the apartment complex. They gazed at the entrance as another group of Uighurs -- mostly women and children -- trickled out, heads bowed so as not to make eye contact with the onlookers.

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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