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August 1, 2009

Reading the Riot Act

I just returned from Хіnjіаng a few days ago, where the government has shut off the internet since the riots. (Naively somehow, I did not think that this would happen at all! I still have so much to learn about China.) This is the first in a series of posts written while isolated in my last weeks at Rockriverton. Some of the information echoes what the news already has reported. Still, it comes from the perspective of someone who has lived here for a bit longer than the journalists who had swooped in on Uruмqi after the riots and went on a whirlwind tour of the region. Хіnjіаng expats, in comparison, all have personal connections to locals and have seen firsthand many of the issues that have emerged as causing the riots. I guess that also makes us more biased in one way or another...

In celebration of American Independence Day, DFL and I had taken the bus to Uruмqi to meet with friends and to run errands. DFL needed to extend his visa while I wanted to buy a birthday present for my sister. On Sunday July 5, we spent the morning in the Erdaoqiao District where we stuffed our faces with delicious dumplings and rifled through brilliantly colored pashminas. It was a dry, but sweltering, hot day-- the streets were quiet save the storekeepers in the bazaar who hassled foreign tourists and blasted Uуghur reggaeton. In the afternoon, we headed towards the city's amusement park for some rides. (The view from the Ferris wheel, below, overlooks Santunbei bus station). One scene continues to haunt me from the park, only because of the tragic events which soon followed: families across ethnic and class backgrounds were lazily picnicking together among the roller coasters and golf carts, a rare sight in Uruмqi. Around dinner, I decided to return to Rockriverton by bus, as I had to do some paperwork at home. In retrospect, this negligible act saved me from danger.
As reported in news sources around the world, during the late afternoon in the bazaar and nearby neighborhoods of Uruмqi, hundreds gathered to protest against the Shaoguan incident, in which Han factory workers incited a race riot against their Uуghur coworkers in Guangdong, leaving two dead and hundreds injured, officially. I first heard about the upheaval when a teacher friend called me from his cell phone downtown, about "explosions near Nanmen." I thought he was joking. (Our waiban did not bother to tell us about the riots until two or three days later.) Though the Shaoguan Incident was the ostensible cause, various events and policies have ratcheted up ethnic tension in Хіnjіаng for weeks, some say months, and even years. Besides the demolition of historic Kashgar, Uуghurs have pointed to (what they see as) systematic discrimination in Хіnjіаng including language policy, migrant labor, unemployment, and economic and educational disparities. This is also the year of significant anniversaries. The authorities, however, do not believe that China has profound ethnic problems, and have framed the riots (pun intended) as the work of Rеbiyа Kаdееr and separatists beyond its borders, financially backed by the likes of the United States and Pakistan.

The demonstration spiraled out of control, and more violent elements began attacking Han passers-by, overturning and burning buses and cars, and lighting apartment buildings on fire. One foreign archaeologist, who found himself stuck in a taxi amidst the mob, witnessed a group of Uуghurs pull a Han man from his bicycle and then beat him to death with sticks and a shovel. The faculty at my university claimed that gangs gouged out the eye of a former college president. Several sensational rumors have emerged about the violence; for instance, a Uуghur supposedly slit the throat of a Han elementary school student during the upheaval. An Uruмqi hospital issued sticks to its nurses, who had to beat back some interlopers, and then later treated them for those wounds they had inflicted. From the few videos released later by CCTV, Uruмqi to me looked like the street anarchy in A Clockwork Orange. The official death toll was 197 people, and over fifteen hundred injured, two-thirds of them being Han. Locals in Uruмqi, not just the overseas Uуghur community, continue to dispute this statistic; everyone I have talked to believes that it is much higher. For instance, a Han friend of mine from Kuytun, a city three and a half hours away from Uruмqi, personally knew eight victims of the riots. To her and many others, the two hundred dead, while mathematically possible, seem improbable in reality.
DFL, who stayed on in Uruмqi, found himself caught in this deadly fracas. On July 6 and 7, he observed and photographed truckloads of soldiers being bussed into the city. Along the streets, shopkeepers closed their businesses and police set up checkpoints to inspect car trunks. He even saw a van filled with baozi and another truck with vats of soup just for the hundreds of troops in town. On July 7, he spotted roving bands of vigilantes that were prowling the streets. Armed with sticks, shovels, hatchets, and Chinese flags, these Han men attempted to mete out "justice" by attacking Uуghurs. Apparently, another protest by Uуghur women about the arrests made on July 5 also occurred on that same day, but that none of us were aware of this demonstration until after leaving Хіnjіаng and reading about it on the internet.

Meanwhile, early Monday morning at 4 am, the government shut off the internet, in efforts to squelch rumors circulating and people organizing. This happened much to the dismay of hundreds of teenage boys addicted to internet games across Хіnjіаng. Similarly, cell phone texting stopped working the following afternoon. At first, I found that only the Хіnjіаng government and bingtuan sites operated, but since then, more and more websites-- on news, tourism, healthcare, movies, have gone online. None of them, of course, allow netizens to upload videos or pictures, send messages, or post blogs. One email service was in operation after two weeks, but no new users could register accounts there. Moreover, these same websites, such as Tianshannet, remain inaccessible outside of Хіnjіаng, which means that most of the information leaving Uruмqi is through government and media channels, besides unofficial leaks of videos and snapshots. Outsiders therefore know more about what is happening in Хіnjіаng than the people actually living there.

The fact that these two realms of information are hermetically sealed off from each other is creating two alternate realities about the events in July. Likewise, CCTV and other news stations broadcasted the same bland footage of the riots, stressing heroic stories of Uуghurs or Han rescuing each other in the melee. At the time, it was the only way to restore public order. When I finally left the region a few days ago, I was shocked to see the photographs of carnage that we could not access within Хіnjіаng. American observers have compared the upheaval to the 1992 Los Angeles Race Riots, but I have noticed many other similarities to the 1923 Tokyo Korean Massacre-- namely, the inability to account for casualties, unaddressed grievances with migrant labor, and the role of rumors in the violence.

Posted on August 1, 2009 5:12 PM

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Thanks for your take from inside. The coverage was pretty thorough in America for a few days but I haven't heard narry a peep in the last weeks.

Posted by: David at August 2, 2009 2:56 PM

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