What will happen to young Almira now, after all the slashings and the bombing at railway stations recently? Will the pretty 25-year-old Uyghur tourist guide, who showed us all over Chengdu, lose her smile? Her mother back in Xinjiang regularly sends her a supply of halal health bars, knowing she won’t eat anything fattening. Will she now call her back home or is working outside Xinjiang safer for young Uyghurs?
Tuesday’s slashing at Guangzhou railway station is not yet being traced to Xinjiang-based Muslim Uyghur separatists. It is not clear whether the “white hats” worn by the four slashers were skull caps. Unlike our cops, the Chinese prefer to wait before announcing who the culprits are, even though the modus operandi suggests that they were part of a pattern of railway station slashings that started in March in Kunming. Twenty-nine people were killed, and the attack was blamed on separatists.
But on the internet, calls for crushing the terrorists are not marked by hatred towards Uyghurs. On the contrary, those abusing Xinjiangers are themselves criticized. One Han describes how safe he felt the night of the Urumqi bombing as the only Han in his building, when his Uyghur neighbours knocked on his door to tell him he had left his keys hanging in the keyhole. Some ask the government to introspect on whether its heavy-handed approach has worked. Significantly, the censors’ directive on how to report the bombing says focus on the “maintenance of ethnic cooperation and social stability”.
The April 30 bombing and stabbing at Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, took place just as the president had wound up a four-day visit to the province. He wore a Xinjiang cap and ate local snacks with locals, but his central message was “step up the war against terrorism”. He told school kids to make sure that they learn Mandarin for that way lay jobs. Not exactly the right thing to say to a people who feel their distinct culture is under threat from the majority Han population.
The president could have made time to visit the family of the teenage motorcyclist shot by the cops a week before his visit. While the police alleged the boy had assaulted them after they chased him for speeding through a red light, his friends refuted this. They said he didn’t heed police warnings to stop, only because he didn’t want to pay the traffic fine. He’d lost his father as a child and his mother struggled to bring up her three kids. Angry villagers took his body to the county office. Typically, instead of showing sensitivity for having created an avoidable tragedy, the cops broke up the protest, telling the mother the incident was being misused by extremists, so she should bury her child quickly. Incidentally, one of the Urumqi bombers hailed from the same area, Aksu, among the more restive areas in Xinjiang.
The Guangzhou stabbings are alarming since the city is a major international destination for trade; one foreigner was among those injured. How will the government react? After a major riot between Hans and Uyghurs in Urumqi in 2009 in which almost 200 died, Xinjiang was punished with a 10-month ban on internet, SMS and international calls. Students applying to foreign universities, businessmen trading outside the province, and expats in Xinjiang had no choice but to travel to the neighbouring province and check into hotels that had internet facilities. To talk to relatives abroad, people would call up friends in Beijing, who would then call up the relative, and hold the second phone close to the first. Xinhua described this period as one where youngsters honed their singing skills and played outdoors while mothers stopped nagging them for being online 24/7.