“My name is Jiang and I am not a terrorist.’’ This post was made by Alimjan, an Uyghur from Xinjiang, in the wake of the terrorist attack in Kunming’s railway station, which left 29 dead on March 1. Alimjan is a minor celebrity: a kebab seller who for years worked far from his home province, and spent his earnings on helping poor students in the city where he worked. Back in Xinjiang now, he wrote on a blog called “I am Xinjiang’’, set up after the Kunming attack: “I will wear my ethnic clothing. I will speak my Uyghur language. My name is Jiang but I am not a terrorist.’’
The blog has Xinjiang residents speaking with pride about their province, and making passionate appeals not to tar all of them with the deeds of the masked knife-wielders in Kunming. Wrote one: “In Xinjiang, there are over 260 violent terrorist incidents every year, but I have never heard anyone say, ‘Xinjiang don’t cry, Xinjiang stand strong.’ The moment this kind of thing happens in the mainland, there is every kind of prayer. The over 16 million people of Xinjiang are all scolded along with the few terrorists as dog shit. To this unjust thing, we can only say: Xinjiang, stand strong! I never regret being born in Xinjiang.’’
While a lot of anger has been expressed against the United States of America for not condemning the incident as a terrorist act right away, and lacing its condemnation with criticism of the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs, even State-owned papers have quoted Chinese experts ascribing the acts of terror to “the mismanagement of domestic ethnic relations and a misunderstanding of religion.’’ Do not relate such cases to an ethnic issue in such a casual way, advised one official, pointing out that previous terrorist attacks by the “enemy’’ hurt both (the majority) Hans and Uyghurs.
One professor spoke of the need to “defend the rights of Muslims and improve living conditions’’ in Xinjiang, while another warned the government not to further alienate the Uyghurs by increased surveillance and the search for ‘scapegoats’.
But on the ground, in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, security presence was increased, and the lawyer of the jailed Uyghur professor, Ilham Tohti, refused permission to meet his client, who faces a death sentence for allegedly advocating separatism. In Beijing, two well- known bloggers were warned about their posts. One of them, a journalist, had quoted what a reporter told him: “(the press) would never tell you what has really happened. Instead, they would lead you on to blindly hate, inexplicably fear, sleepwalk through life, then die without understanding anything.”
The “I am Xinjiang’’ blog has one blogger predicting a bleak picture of what this attack means for Uyghurs. “From now on you (Uyghurs) will face all kinds of discrimination in airports and train stations, you will lose the freedom of speech and movement that you have now... This group of b******s has harmed millions of people.” Indeed, incidents have been reported in the official media about Uyghurs being turned away from hotels and internet cafes. Restaurants run by Xinjiangers in Kunming saw a drop in attendance; Uyghur students in Beijing had to show their ID cards at every point and some just stayed home for a few days.
But things are not completely hopeless. The fact that the “I am Xinjiang’’ blog, as also posts by other Chinese saying don’t tar all Xinjiangers with the same brush, have not been taken down, is itself a testimony to increased official tolerance. Perhaps the best example of hope came from the tourist city of Dali. Police who ordered an Uyghur kebab seller to wind up and go back to Xinjiang, were forced to apologize and retract after his Han neighbours and customers protested.