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Clifford Coonan: Tension over Chinese migrants mirrors Tibet riots

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.