Ethnic groups in Urumqi, China, grow more wary of each other after attacks
By Barbara Demick | Los Angeles Times | Published: May 24, 2014
URUMQI, China — Kuerban Jiang was riding a bus to his job as a security guard when he noticed fellow commuters staring at him askance.
When he reached work he found out that two explosives-laden cars had plowed into the morning market near his home in Urumqi on Thursday, leaving dozens of people dead or injured, including two from his neighborhood who were killed. He quickly realized that the strange looks on the bus were probably because he is the same ethnicity as the suspected assailants — Uighur.
“I felt not so much scared as embarrassed. I’m ashamed when anything happens pointing to Uighurs,” said Kuerban, 40, who has sandy hair and a pointy nose supporting wire-rim glasses.
Chinese authorities said Friday that the death toll in the market attack had risen to at least 43, making it the deadliest of a recent spate of bombings and stabbings attributed to separatists among the Uighur population, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority in the country’s northwest.
Police said they had identified the bodies of several suicide bombers who were linked to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a separatist group operating out of Pakistan. The attackers drove two large SUVs into the market, hurling explosives out the windows, before blowing up the vehicles.
Two suspects from Hotan, southwest of Urumqi, were being sought, authorities said.
Urumqi is a city of 3 million that serves as the capital of China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. Like many Chinese cities, it is plastered with slogans extolling harmony between ethnic groups. “Ethnic unity is important,” read the LED displays affixed on the roofs of some taxis.
But the alarming succession of bombings and knifings attributed to Uighur separatists belie the propaganda and are straining relations even among the most tolerant. A March 1 knife assault at the Kunming railroad station left 33 people dead.
An armored personnel carrier was parked in front of the Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital, where many victims of Thursday’s attack were being treated. A gas station was sealed off with antitank barricades.
Guards posted at schools, supermarkets, bus and rail stations and hotels ordered people to open their bags for inspection — with Uighurs getting the request more often than Han, the majority ethnic group in China.
“When I was young I didn’t think about these things, but now when I see Uighurs who have their face covered or are carrying big bags on the bus that might explode, I must admit, I’m scared,” said Wu Gang, 54, a neighbor and friend of Kuerban’s family who works with the city’s emergency services.
Wu was born in Urumqi, where his parents were sent in 1949 during Mao Zedong’s campaign to colonize China’s wild west. Unlike most other Han living here, he speaks some Uighur and refrains from eating pork, in deference to his many Muslim friends.
He lives on the top floor of a six-story walk-up a few blocks from the bombed market. Kuerban’s family lives on the ground floor. Both families have lived in the building since the 1980s in apartments allocated to civil servants, nearly identical except for the furnishings: Wu has a paisley sectional sofa, a wine rack and a computer. Kuerban’s family has heavy wooden furniture with brocade upholstery and an Oriental rug on the wall.
The neighbors chatted Friday in the downstairs apartment about the repercussions of the attacks on ethnic relations while sharing a pot of tea and nan, a round Uighur bread as big as a large pizza.
“We have a lot of Han friends who have lived here a long time. I don’t have to explain to them that most Uighurs deplore this kind of violence,” Kuerban said. “But there are also many new people in town who don’t know us.”
“This was a very cruel attack,” said Kuerban’s 46-year-old brother, Niyazi, who said he frequently shopped at the same market. “Those people who were killed were mostly old people and poor people. It is incomprehensible what they did, and it will hurt ethnic harmony.”
The brothers said they had no sympathy for the attackers. But, wary of getting into trouble for speaking up, they acknowledged that they disagreed with much of Chinese government policy.
Urumqi has seen an influx in recent years of people from China’s west, tilting the ethnic balance in favor of Han and taking away jobs that might have gone to Uighurs.
“People will tell you they don’t want Uighurs. They will only hire Chinese,” Kuerban said.
After serving in the army, he said, he spent four years doing odd jobs before he was able to land a permanent position as a security guard. The job pays only about $200 a month, low even by Chinese standards, and he is trying to support a wife and infant daughter.
The family has a good apartment, thanks to the fact that Kuerban’s late father worked as a manager for a state-owned steel company and joined the Communist Party.
But the younger generation has seen its earnings slip away. Kuerban’s older brother has given up searching for work and now stays home to take care of their ailing mother.
“I think the government has to address the jobless problem,” Kuerban said. “That might help prevent trouble.”