By a Toronto Review correspondent*

URUMQI—There were a lot of rumours and a lot of fear following the July 4, 2009 riots in Urumqi, the capital of China’s northwest Muslim province of Xinjiang. But by September of that year, the restrictions being placed on the city’s denizens — even during Ramadan, a tense period at the best of times — are barely noticeable, at least as far as armed police presence goes.

Swarms of ethnically Han Chinese gather in the early morning hours in the local People’s Square, the alleged flash point of the violent protests, which had an official tally of 140 recorded deaths. But in the cool September mornings, the square is the sight of pure serenity, with tai chi practitioners swooping through slow movements and others dancing. One man, his white collared shirt loosened around his neck and his briefcase propped against the wall behind him, whirls a pair of nun-chucks. An older, Muslim Uighur gentleman cycles steadily through the square. No one pays him any mind.

It’s clear who runs Urumqi. It’s also evident that the government is less worried about unruliness in the Han-dominated provincial capital than they are in distant Kashgar, 1,000 miles away in the predominantly Muslim parts of south Xinjiang, where every night platoons of army trucks — in safer groups of three — roll slowly through the streets,  hazard lights flashing, the growl of engines preceding an unnatural hush that rests in their wake. Young men with riot shields and guns line the edges of the trucks and peer out of the canopied backs. Some tip up their face shields to smoke.

In Kashgar, the military trucks all bear red banners inscribed with slogans. Many include the term tuanjie, or unity. Plaques in museums throughout the region remind visitors that Xinjiang is an inseparable part of China, like the less volatile but more well known Tibet, to Xinjiang’s south. Police checkpoints clog traffic at all main arteries leading in and out of the city. Every car is stopped. An apathetic Uighur in uniform scans the ID card of every local and outsider. Foreigners must present their passports, and their names, passport numbers and visa numbers are recorded in the logbook. Some officers make polite chit-chat. “ Where are you from? America? That’s a good place.”

While it’s flattering to hear the United States is in good standing with road check officers, in this Muslim Autonomous Region — “autonomous” being an ironic modifier at best — it’s painfully clear that as far as Kashgar is concerned, Xinjiang is not a good place to live for its own dominant ethnic minority (though even in Urumqi, Muslim cab drivers will punch their fists into their palm at the mention of America, for its funding of Israel’s oppression of Palestine). Kashgar looks like what most people would think Communism looks like. During the day, the wujing — armed policemen — are casual, belying their recent passage through adolescence. Some of these youth wave at foreign visitors, while others gather around the large cooking pot hauled out for meal times at a post near a mosque, jockeying for a ration while the Uighurs around them quietly fast during the dying days of Ramadan.

But at night, the wujing multiply, camping out behind sandbags in public squares and outside shopping malls. People are politely informed not to take photos. The wujing are considerate enough, one supposes, when dealing with tourists — asking that images be deleted, but without confiscating any camera equipment.

Uncomfortable, yes. But tourists can leave. To live in Kashgar, however, is to feel watched and under suspicion at all times. The resulting atmosphere of nervousness, fear and displaced guilt permeates the air. Men with guns monitor every move, their weapons alone implying a number of accusations: You might be a terrorist. We know you, and we don’ t trust you.

Constructed destruction

Dutar is standing at the edge of a demolition site, hosing down dust against a backdrop of battered-looking houses. In early 2009, bulldozers started razing flat sections of Kashgar’ s old city, which formed an intricate maze of ancient housing that forms the cornerstone of the city’ s identity. These buildings are old and dangerous, he explains to me, a sentiment echoed nightly by a team of “experts,” both Chinese and foreign, projected on a massive video screen in Kashgar’s People’ s Square. Drawings of the planned reconstruction accompany the talking heads. The buildings, obviously, hide too much — perhaps even enemies of the state.

To many local Uighur residents, the reconstructions are yet another attempt at stripping away the region’ s distinctly non-Chinese culture, replacing it with the faceless, massive concrete buildings that define urban centers on the country’s eastern seaboard and, increasingly, in far-flung locals within this sprawling state’s borders, like Tibet. While the artists’ renderings of planned reconstructions do contain a nod to Uighur architecture in the buildings’ accents, the structures themselves are undeniably Soviet, blocky, an uncomfortable contrast against the preexisting, precariously stacked straw and mud double-storey homes, on curving cobblestone lanes that tumble into each other.

Accusations that the reconstruction is equivalent to a giant eraser rubbing away at an increasingly vague sketch of Uighur culture are either denied or ignored by the authorities. The standard reason for the violent change alludes to danger from temblors in this earthquake-prone region. The disastrous earthquake in nearby Sichuan province on May 12, 2008, is cited as an example of why the state must act now. No one mentions that the infamous “tofu” schools that crumbled onto Han children were due primarily to poor, shoddy construction, and were comparatively new.

Dutar (no real names have been used) gestures to the patch of dirt in front of him, and beyond. This is where they filmed The Kite Runner, he says, I have a copy — you can come see it later, if you like. His house is scheduled to be torn down in a later phase of the demolition. He says he understands why this is happening. But not everyone is so complacent.

A feisty middle-aged Uighur man, living in the same area, claims he heard people fled through the sewers when the police started shooting in Urumqi. As the conversation turns to the reconstruction, the man sets off to find his son, a fluent English speaker, to supplement his limited Mandarin.

When they return, his son explains the government is offering a couple of options for those whose homes are included in the reconstruction project. Homeowners can either accept ¥400 (or $60 USD) per square-meter from the government to rebuild their own homes on the original location, as long as they build to government standards. These standards don’t allow for the traditional style of construction that includes open courtyards and earthen floors, he says, which define his own concept of a home. “I don’t like to live in buildings,” he says, with palpable sadness.

The other option is to live in government-built housing, which is supposed to be built on or near the site. But stories like this are heard throughout urban China, of downtown residents being promised the same, then forced to live miles away from their original homes after they have been destroyed, sometimes in desolate high rises in cold suburban neighbourhoods with little sense of the community they once had.

The son doesn’t want to discuss what happened in Urumqi. People in Kasghar are more nervous than in Urumqi, and with good reason. The armed police presence in the town is leagues beyond what is visible in the regional capital. He was in university in Urumqi, he says, but after the riots his worried parents insisted he come home. Now he whiles away his days, with nothing to do.

Work and dilute

He is not alone in his enforced idleness. Uighurs are increasingly marginalized in the Kashgar job market, shoehorned into work that leaves no room for advancement or accomplishment. While the government points to Xinjiang’s greatly improved infrastructure as proof of its dedication to the benefit of the region and its people, the freshly paved roads and better quality public facilities come with a cobweb of strings attached. Opportunities for higher education have nothing to do with landing a good job. “That’s your own problem to take care of,” a third generation Han resident says.

Taqim, a Christian Uighur, likely would not agree. He worked as a security guard, making ¥300 (or $44 USD) a month, until he determined that there was no chance of improving his life beyond that meager monthly salary. He then found work in a hotel for ¥800 a month, which was more satisfactory, but still without much room for advancement.

Muqar, a Muslim, is a friendly, fluent English speaker. When not aiding befuddled tourists, he teaches local students, a role that strictly prohibits him from worshiping at a mosque or fasting for Ramadan. If he gets caught doing either, he’ll be sacked. He is not yet 30, but looks much older. While he went to university to major in physics, his ethnic minority status means the best job he could find after graduating was as a teacher in a village school, 50 kilometers outside the city. The classrooms were freezing cold in winter, and the school had few supplies — just a handful of benches, a blackboard and chalk. During his five months there, he lived in the student dormitories, a place where everyone doubled up, two to a bed (the school couldn’t afford housing for him).

He’s managed to find work within Kashgar, but many others have had similar employment problems. Now employed in the region’s hub, he says finding work for most Uighurs is a constant challenge. Uighur women are told there are no jobs for them in Xinjiang, and that they should go to other provinces where work is available, much of it in distant factories. Government officials must meet a quota for sending workers out, and this intense pressure is often transferred down to these poor, ethnic women. It’s at odds with Uighur culture for a woman to leave her home to work, and when she does, everyone in the household is ill at ease — both those who remain and those who are sent away.

Yet at the same time that local women are sent off, Han Chinese continue to flood into the region. Some hold lower degrees than local Uighurs, Muqar says, but they still get better jobs. To many, this enforced double standard smacks of deliberate ethnic dilution.

It was this export of Uighur workers that contributed in part to the July 4 riots in 2009, the spark of which was a fight between Han and Uighur employees of a factory in the far-away southern province of Guangdong. Official reports say that a few Uighurs were killed in the resulting fight, but rumors in Xinjiang put the number closer to 200. Nowhere near that many bodies came home, says Muqar, and no information was forthcoming as to the discrepancy.

Uighurs gathered in the People’ s Square in Urumqi demanding answers. Where were their children? What had happened to their daughters and sons? Troops were dispatched to manage the situation, and four individuals, possibly protest leaders, were taken into custody. The crowd was told to split into two more manageable groups if they wanted to secure their release, but the Uighurs insisted on the safe handover of their men first. Whether that happened is unclear— as is the allegation that an order came down to shoot dead four to five protesters, by way of example. The crowd panicked. They thought, “they’re killing us,” Muqar says. They reasoned thus: The only recourse was to kill back.

The local Uighurs despise the amplified military presence that followed, the feeling of being smothered by authority but never told in clear terms why, Takim says. “They talk about unity, but they are the ones tearing us apart!” Now, Takim struggles to live a normal life in a place where he is considered a suspect because of his ethnicity. Once, he says, he left the house without his ID card to make a quick run to the corner store. The police picked him up and took him to the police station, where they held him overnight for interrogation, repeatedly asking if he was a Muslim. “Most Uighurs are Muslims, but a very few are Christians,” he says, fingering the indiscreet crucifix worn close to his throat. “How can you think I would cause trouble? You can see here what is in my heart!”

Yet for all of this, no one ever mentions separation (an idea that has historical resonance in Xinjiang, a region that has broken free of rule from the east and declared independence more than once). Either it’s too heavy a topic or most people are cynical enough to recognize it as unrealistic. The most anyone dares say to a stranger, as more than one person did, is: “I want to leave this place. I need to get out of China.”

* Our correspondent, who wrote and photographed this piece, requested anonymity, and anonymity for their interview subjects, given the political sensitivities of the issues being discussed.