In Urumqi, the capital of China’s far western province Xinjiang, I often walk past a propaganda poster that promotes unity within the province. Written in Chinese the sign reads, “Love the country, love Xinjiang. Devote to unity. Work hard to help each other. Strive toward being open.” Despite its intended purpose, for me the sign sparks thoughts of growing tension between the nation’s majority Han and Uyghur minority as a result of recent violence in Xinjiang. Having lived in Urumqi for two years, I have witnessed the widening divide separating Han people from Uyghurs and the discontent present in their far from harmonious relationship.
One only needs to look at the geographical layout of Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi for evidence of the large ethnic divide between Han people and Uyghurs. In Urumqi, Uyghurs generally stick to the southern part of the city. Han people avoid the southern neighborhoods, stressing that it is “duo weixian” or very dangerous.
On one summer evening, one of my Han friends accompanied me unknowingly to southern Urumqi for lamb kabobs. Upon realizing where we were headed, he shivered in fear as a crowd of Uyghurs passed us in the market. Being the only Han in an area full of Uyghurs, it was not until he spotted a military patrol positioned nearby that he told me he began to feel safe and comfortable. After scanning the soldiers equipped in kevlar, riot shields, clubs, and automatic weapons, he turned to a Uyghur friend of mine who accompanied us, asking, “Do Uyghurs often clash with the military here?” My Uyghur friend laughed at his perception of the “dangerous” situation we were in and answered with a simple no.
In such a divided region, the Chinese government relies on propaganda to promote “ethnic unity, striking hard against terrorism, and building a harmonious society.” The mediums for distributing propaganda are numerous. On a typical day in Xinjiang, Chinese people are exposed to state propaganda through text messages, loudspeakers, television advertisements, newspapers, social media, and message boards outside of construction sites, banks, shopping centers, and parks.
But in terms of effectiveness, these messages preaching ethnic unity have little resonance with the people in Xinjiang. The first day I arrived in Urumqi in 2013, I met a young Han woman who had grown up in Kashgar, a city that is widely thought to be the center of Uyghur cultural heritage. When I asked her about her opinion of Uyghurs she retorted saying, “I do not like them. I think they are naturally inclined to do evil things.”
On a separate occurrence, a casual conversation I had with a young Uyghur woman slowly evolved into a discussion about politics where she shared with me her blatant views of Han people. “I hate them. I hate them because they hate me.” She then continued to discuss with me a number of stories where she felt discriminated against by Han people simply because of her Uyghur identity.
Even strangers are often not shy about sharing their feelings of the other in Urumqi. One evening while I was in a taxi, a man, who my driver claimed was a Uyghur (it was honestly too dark to tell for sure which ethnicity he was), walked in front of us forcing my driver to slam on the breaks. The jaywalker’s stroll into oncoming traffic infuriated my driver, who then began shouting about Uyghurs claiming, “They are the worst of all China’s minorities.”
Tensions between Han people and Uyghurs increased significantly following the 2009 riots in Urumqi where nearly 200 people were killed. Most casualties from the riots were Han, many of which were murdered in utterly barbaric ways. One Han teacher urged me to be careful around Uyghurs citing that one of her Han colleague’s head was chopped clear off during the riots.
The 2009 riots in Urumqi among other violent episodes in Xinjiang have collectively imprinted into Han people’s minds a distorted image of what are largely a peaceful people. Simultaneously, revenge killings of Uyghurs by the hands of Han people during the riots have also been a source of contention among Uyghurs. Furthermore, each time violence erupts between Han people and Uyghurs, it simply reopens the sensitive wound in ethnic relations and perpetually drives the two groups further apart.
While walking down the street, a Han friend and I discussed his reaction to a pregnant Uyghur policewoman who was killed in Hotan by knife wielding assailants on October 10th. “The terrorists have completely tarnished the reputation of Uyghurs. They are even killing each other now. Normally, we could get along well with Uyghurs. But after the recent terrorist attacks, I cannot walk on the street without watching my back.”
In response to the violence in Xinjiang, the Chinese government has launched a yearlong campaign against “the three evils” meaning “terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism.” Simultaneously, the government has adopted numerous policies aimed at promoting Han-Uyghur cross-cultural dialogue.
One of these numerous policies includes offering substantial cash stipends for interethnic marriages between Uyghurs and Han people. Yet, this policy is likely to have very little effect, as it does not take into account the strong cultural values barring Uyghurs from interracial marriages. When I asked a 27-year-old Uyghur woman about her thoughts on marrying someone who was Han, she said, “It is completely forbidden. We always look to marry someone from our own ethnic group. They must also be Muslim, which Han people are not.”
In today’s nervous environment, mistrust and suspicion toward the other has reached a point where both groups seldom intermix outside of school and work. On a whole, Xinjiang remains stable and violence against the state and civilians is sporadic. Yet as a consequence of the violence, interethnic hatred has infiltrated every tier of society.
Special thanks to Kendrick Kuo for his edits on this piece.