Clifford Coonan: Tension over Chinese migrants mirrors Tibet riots

Related Topics

It was a telling phrase, whispered furtively by a frightened man looking over his shoulder. He was a Muslim Uighur in the restive western Chinese province of Xinjiang, where scores of people were killed in violence at the weekend directed at Han Chinese settlers. How would he describe the relationship between the Uighurs and the Chinese?

"There is no relationship," he said, resentment in his voice. A Muslim, his own language is of Turkic origin and he bears no resemblance to the Han Chinese, China's dominant ethnic group.

Later that day, the first question asked by a Han Chinese policeman checking me out was: "Do you feel safe here?" Even though they don't trust each other, even though they are dissimilar in appearance, culture, religion and politics, the fates of the Uighurs and the Chinese have been linked for hundreds of years by the Silk Road caravan routes through the region that sent Chinese silk to the Middle East and Europe.

In Urumqi on Sunday, the tension between the two spilled over. Scores were killed in China's deadliest unrest since the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

Such bloodshed seems out of place in Urumqi, a pleasant city thousands of miles from Beijing. To get there, you fly four hours from the capital over unrelenting desert; when you land, you are further from the sea than any other major city on Earth.

An influx of migrants means Urumqi is now dominated by Han Chinese. Almost half of Xinjiang's 20 million people are Uighurs, many of whom want independence for Xinjiang, a region rich in minerals and oil that borders eight Central Asian nations. They say the millions of Han Chinese who have settled here are gradually squeezing the Uighurs out.

They are unhappy with the growing economic and political power of Han Chinese and reject what they see as cultural imperialism from Beijing, much as Tibetan activists feel about what is happening there. The weekend's violence in Xinjiang echoes that seen in Lhasa and other Tibetan areas in March last year, when Han Chinese and Chinese-owned businesses were also targeted.

The relationship between Uighurs and Chinese is extremely complicated. Xinjiang is close to Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and visually has more in common with these countries. You do not feel like you are in China when you stand on the streets of Kashgar, although Urumqi looks more and more Chinese as migration transforms the city. Chinese in other parts of the country use racial stereotypes and talk of how Uighurs cannot be trusted, how they cut purses with sharp knives.

Beijing says separatist Uighurs are violent Islamist fundamentalists trying to cut the province off from Chinese rule. Rights groups and Uighur activists say Beijing exaggerates the threat posed to stability to justify its tough grip on the province, the largest in the country.

In the last 60 years, the Beijing government's role there has expanded. It is currently knocking down the ancient city of Kashgar, transforming its narrow traditional streets into tiled, modern structures that have horrified critics who see a culture under threat, and making an already difficult relationship harder still.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform