July 10, 2009 / 4:13 AM / 10 years ago

Uighurs flee city of strife and opportunity

URUMQI, China (Reuters) - The crush of bus passengers leaving the strife-hit capital of far-west China’s Xinjiang has become a heaving, sweating testament to Muslim Uighurs’ volatile bond with a land of jobs and opportunity.

The South Long-Distance Bus Station in Urumqi has been crowded with thousands leaving after Uighur rioters killed 156 people and wounded 1,080 on Sunday. Han Chinese, the country’s predominant ethnic group, struck back with acts of mob violence on Tuesday, but security forces have now gained control.

Many in the waiting crowd that spilled outside the station into the sunshine said they were fleeing after days hiding in fear. But many said also Han-dominated Urumqi was much richer and better-serviced than their dusty hometowns, and still represented the best hopes for them to escape hardship and joblessness.

Even as they waited for buses to Kashgar and other Uighur centres to the south, some seemed unsure if or when they would return to Urumqi, caught between fearing China’s growth here but also depending on its fruits. A few said never.

“I don’t want to leave my business, but I’m scared of being arrested or attacked,” said Mutalifu, a clothes vendor in his 20s, fanning himself as he waited for a 24-hour ride to Kashgar.

“I’ve been telling my girlfriend we won’t come back. But I think we will. Kashgar is home but there’s no life for us there.”

More than 1,000 suspected rioters have been taken into police custody for questioning.

Shopkeepers near the bus station estimated that passengers were about a third more than usual for this busy time of year.

The mixture of dependence on and wariness of China and its wealth was echoed by many at the grimy bus station and may help explain the spasm of anti-Han bloodshed that shook Urumqi.

Many of the Uighurs who attacked Han residents were young men, both local and from the poorer south, said Ahmed Jan, a Uighur doctor who watched the Sunday riot unfold outside the window of his clinic in the city’s bazaar district.

“The ones I saw were young men without hope, without work, without education. No chance of a job like mine,” he said.

“They know what they want, but they know they can’t get it. I don’t support killing at all, but such anger must have a reason.”


Old men in white skull caps and long cloaks and women fully covered in Muslim head-dresses jostled with young men in jeans and girls in short tops and high heels. Nobody seemed to mind.

Many Uighurs, a Turkic people who share linguistic and cultural bonds with Central Asia, resent government controls on religion and culture, an influx of Han migrants and a growing wealth gap between Han and Uighurs.

“Urumqi is too chaotic. Not like home at all. So many Han,” said Toktemeni, 54, a bony farmer in a robe and green embroidered cap, who cut short a visit to Urumqi and would return to Kashgar.

He was impressed by the expressways and tall shiny buildings. “But I won’t ever come back. We saw crowds hunting us,” he said.

Many in the crowd were university students, told to go home two weeks early after Uighur students led protests that preceded the street slayings on Sunday.

Uighur university graduates have relatively few chances for lucrative jobs, especially in the swathes of Xinjiang where farming and herding still dominate economic life. But the protests have deepened Chinese suspicions of Uighurs.

Last year Urumqi’s economy grew 15 percent, pushed by government spending. City residents’ average disposable income reached 12,328 yuan ($1,800). By contrast, Xinjiang rural residents made an average 3,503 yuan per person.

Urumqi has a population of 2.4 million, a little under three-quarters Han, although many migrants of all ethnicities may not be included in this official count.

That means many Uighurs wanting steady jobs and incomes look to Urumqi or even more distant Chinese cities, even if they feel like second-class citizens or outright threats.

“It’s too tense here. I want to leave but I can’t,” said Rexian Guli, a 24-year-old Uighur woman in jeans and a sequined top who ran a beauty salon in Urumqi.

“I’m also scared about staying here, but I have to work... In Urumqi, it’s the big city and everyone wants to look beautiful.”

Additional reporting by Liu Zhen; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim

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