A Perfect Bomb

Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang, China’s largest province, about the size of Germany, France, and Italy combined. The region has a long history of unrest between Uighurs (Turkic-speaking Muslims who account for about half of the region’s 23 million people) and Han Chinese (the ethnic majority in China). The most recent confrontation was on July 5, 2009, when three-hundred Uighur students gathered in the center of Urumqi to protest the killings of Uighur migrant workers in Guangdong province. By late afternoon, their numbers had swelled to several thousand; by evening they had become violent.

Official figures put the number of dead at two hundred, with hundreds more injured. Initial reports suggested that the majority of victims were Han Chinese, which in turn suggested that the killings were ethnically motivated, an idea the Chinese government was quick to downplay. According to them, the protests were “masterminded by terrorist, separatist, and extremist forces both inside and outside China.” This explanation was designed to obscure the fact that most Uighurs resent government policies in the region, particularly the continuing influx of Han Chinese from other parts of the country. Most of these come to work on the bingtuans (state-owned farms and factories run by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary organization). Though there are high levels of unemployment among Uighurs in the region, the ethnic composition of the bingtuans remains over 90 percent Han. There are also frequent complaints of religious repression and a lack of respect for Uighur culture.

Resentment against the state has led to a series of incidents, some peaceful, some violent, over the last two decades, ranging from protests in Baren in 1990 and Yining in 1997 to grenade attacks on a police station in Kashgar in the runup to the 2008 Olympics. All of these incidents were directed against the Chinese authorities, and thus drew an implicit distinction between the roles of officialdom and the ethnicity of those who inhabit these roles. The attacks on ordinary Han Chinese on July 5, therefore, marked a major departure. The conflict was now ethnic as well as political.

This shift in thinking was underlined by a series of revenge attacks on July 7, when a Han mob armed with sticks, metal poles, and clubs targeted Uighur neighborhoods in Urumqi. Shops and homes were destroyed and several people killed before police dispersed the crowd. It was unclear why the thousands of police and soldiers who had been brought into the city had not stopped the mob earlier.

It also remained unclear how the initially peaceful protest of July 5 turned into a night of murder. Having lived in the region seven years before, I hoped that some of my old contacts might have some answers. But it proved hard to find people after so long, not least because internet access was blocked. For a week I roamed the streets of Urumqi, watching and photographing police and soldiers from behind parked cars. I struck up conversations in shops and restaurants, hoping, each time in vain, that talk about kebabs or the weather would somehow lead to information.

On the afternoon I went to Kentucky Fried Chicken, I had pretty much given up. I was halfway through a bucket of wings when a voice said in English, “Do you like chicken?”

I looked up and saw a Uighur man, tall and in his early 20s. A cold sore shone above his lip, which had a faint cloud of moustache.

“Not much,” I said. “What about you?”

“Chicken is good.” He introduced himself as Alim and asked where I was from. When I wiped my mouth and told him, he nodded his approval. Then he asked what I did for a living. I told him I was a journalist who sometimes wrote about China. Usually this made people withdraw, but Alim smiled.

“That is very good. Do you have free time?” Oddly, my first instinct was to say no. Not because he frightened me—he could not have been less threatening—but I was taken aback by his eagerness. After all, we had been talking for less than a minute. But I had hardly spoken to anyone all week, other than taxi drivers and hotel staff, so I said yes, I had time.

“Now I have to pray,” he said. “Then I must do something for my uncle.” He paused to look at his phone. “At four o’clock, I will meet you on Er Dao Qiao. By the camel.”

He could also have said “by the eagle”; tourists take pictures with both in a small square opposite the new Grand Bazaar. In 2002, the Bazaar had been a sprawling, chaotic maze of stalls that sold knives, carpets, and pomegranate juice; now it was a series of strip-lit cubicles inside a faux-Islamic building.

“I will go first,” said Alim and left. For an hour and a half I wandered through alleys where Uighurs sold shoes, fabric, and sheep’s heads, or welded large sheets of steel. An old woman sold plastic combs from a tray hung round her neck. By a quarter to four, I was standing next to the camel. I counted six police cars and three riot vans within my view. By day these drove around the Uighur neighborhoods; at night they patrolled the streets outside Xinjiang University, from which most of the student protesters had come.

When Alim arrived he walked past me and muttered, “Let’s go.” I followed him down a small street where two young Uighur girls were selling pink plastic belts. We passed a mosque covered in grubby white tiles. Alim turned down an alley lined with broken televisions, stopped at a door and knocked. There was no answer, so he knocked again.

The door opened onto darkness. “Please come in,” said Alim. I hesitated, and then entered.

Inside a light was switched on, showing the space to be a storeroom full of carpets and rugs. We took off our shoes before entering a smaller carpeted room whose walls were bare except for a large photo of Mecca. Alim was wearing orange and white striped socks, which somehow reminded me of clownfish.

We sat on blue cushions around a low table piled with nuts, dried fruit, and hunks of naan bread. A middle-aged woman, hair wrapped in a pink scarf, came in with a teapot and bowls. “My aunt,” said Alim, as she poured the tea and walked out. I had experienced such hospitality in hundreds of Uighur homes, and it was perhaps the familiarity of the situation that kept me from wondering why he had brought me there in such secrecy. But then he reached over to a small black briefcase. He opened it and brought out a laptop, which he placed on the table.

“First you should see this.”

On screen I watched a blur of movement. A crowd of people were running and shouting, at night, between apartment buildings. The camerawork was shaky, for the person holding it was running as well. I heard excited shouts, then a scream. The camera’s operator slowed to walking pace as he approached a small group of people standing in a circle. They parted and I saw a Uighur man lying on the ground, his hands and face covered in blood. Then came more shouting, and the crowd and cameraman were moving again, back between the apartments until they reached a parked ambulance. Inside, another Uighur man was lying on a stretcher. The camera panned away till five or six other bodies could be seen. They lay on the ground in front of the ambulance, bloodied and still. A man stepped forward and kicked one of them. He was pulled away by a policeman, the first I had seen thus far. The video ended. I looked at Alim, who said, “Again?”

On second viewing it was clear that the blur of motion at the beginning was the Uighur man being pursued. It was also clear that everyone, bar the dead and injured, were Han Chinese. As they stood around the body, someone shouted, “Another one,” either because they were keeping score, or as a suggestion.

We were silent after the clip ended. However many violent films one has seen, the sight of a real person being killed evokes a horror uncomplicated by thought. Later I wondered how many times Alim had watched the clip; if even his intense hatred had its own plateau.

“That was on May 25,” he said. “In Guangdong province. The government forces many Uighurs to work in factories there. Almost 100,000.”

“It forces them?” I said, surprised. China has a huge pool of migrant laborers (around 130 million, according to the National Bureau of Statistics), who flock from the countryside to the cities. Usually the possibility of well-paid work is incentive enough, which is most likely true for both Uighurs and Han alike. But Alim claimed that some Uighurs, especially from the south of Xinjiang, were threatened with fines if they refused.

“They want to separate us,” he said. “This”—he pointed at the screen—”was in a toy factory. There were over 8,000 Uighurs working there. After a man wrote some lies about a girl who was raped, over 2,000 Chinese attack them. Seventeen Uighurs were beaten to death. But the government says only two.”

I nodded, but was unsure; it is difficult to tell the difference between someone who has been beaten to death and someone who has merely been beaten into unconsciousness.

“And the police did not stop it. They did not arrest anyone. For them, it does not matter if some Uighurs are killed.”

Xinhua, the government news agency, reported that there had been thirteen arrests. But this report cameafter the July riots in Urumqi, which invites the question of when these arrests took place.

“From June 26 to July 3, almost all the Uighur websites respond to this event. They began to change the colors of their websites to light gray one by one for mourning.”

Alim said that on July 3 Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman jailed in China, but later released into exile in the US, who heads the World Uighur Congress, called on Uighurs to protest. The message spread via discussion boards and instant messaging programs.

“Then someone sent a picture message which contained exact place and time of demonstration. We promise to be in people’s square at 5:00 pm. I was awake all the night up to prayer time [fajr, the pre-dawn prayer]. After pray, I went to sleep and waked up at about 11 a.m. Then I had to help my friend move house. There were many boxes. I was very tired!”

He grinned in a boyish manner, as if we were not talking of demonstrations or killings.

“When I come to the Square, many are already there. Because July 5 was Sunday, so they come early. When the police see many people gather, they try to separate them. A policeman knock a girl’s breast, so others began to shout at him and other policemen come and order them back. The police took pictures and videos, they act violently, shout at all people, arrest about thirty. Then more and more people come. I join them and we increased soon to more than 1,000. I will show you.”

From twenty stories up, we watched a crowd of thousands of protestors. They blocked one side of the street, and would no doubt have spilled onto the other had a fence not partitioned the road. Their whistles were loud and echoing. No police were in sight.

Then the video cut to ground level, in the midst of the crowd. At first the camerawork was shaky, so that all I could see were people walking quickly. Their faces were blurred, their speech unclear. Then I saw a face I knew: Alim was waving his arms in the air and shouting. I wondered why he had kept a copy of a film that so clearly implicated him. But this question was pushed aside by the expression on his face in the video. Instead of anger or fear, there was joy.

“The police try to stop us but we broke through. Then they stop us and push us back. After that they arrest two or three of us. Every time we ran back they chased us, but not so far, so we gather again.”

His expression as he spoke was almost the same as on screen—the same elation, the same sense of release.

“Then large numbers of PLA [People’s Liberation Army] soldiers began to come and act as if they are in battle. This made people angry. At about six-thirty some people started to throw things at the soldiers.”

“Did you also throw things?”

He nodded. “I will not do that again. But we were so angry.”

I asked how the stone throwing had led to the looting and murders; if it was true (as was rumored) that much of the violence was carried out by street traders—the people selling belts, shoes, underwear, tights, and key rings from tarpaulins on the pavement that you see in most cities in China. Unemployment is a problem throughout the country, but Xinjiang has particularly high rates of joblessness, especially among Uighurs. This makes the fact that the bingtuans are almost 90 percent Han a particular source of resentment for Uighurs.

But Alim did not believe that the violence could be solely explained by economic frustrations.

“They did some of it,” he said. “But even without them, it would happen. There are too many other things.”

I asked if it was true that the violence had been directed against the Han, expecting him to deny this, to dismiss it as an attempt on the part of the government to discredit the protestors. But without hesitation he said, “Yes, it is true. Many Chinese were killed. But also eighty or ninety Uighurs are killed by police. They do not say this on television or in newspaper. They only talk about the dead Chinese.”

The newspapers and TV had been selective in other ways; none of my Han friends outside Urumqi knew anything about the revenge attacks on Uighur neighborhoods on July 7.

“And there is another thing,” said Alim. “The newspapers say we were shouting Sha Han Hui Mei. It means Kill the Han, Exterminate the Hui. But this is Chinese slogan, not Uighur. And to make this kind of slogan you must be very educated person. If we say this in Uighur, it would not sound like this. We did some shout some things on the protest, but it was Justice or Wake up.”

I asked why they had shouted the latter.

“Because most Uighurs do not understand what is happening. They think that if they do not do some political thing there will be no problem. It is because of this that we are not so strong. If you have a heart, there can only be three ways: you are arrested, dead, or you go abroad.”

We were interrupted by a loud crash from above. Alim shifted on the cushions and said, “It is just my friend,” but he didn’t seem convinced. We waited, but heard nothing more, and so Alim continued.

“That night I stop two young men who were beating a Chinese very badly. They would kill him if I did not. Several days later, I did not know why I do this.”

The attacks on July 7 changed his mind. That the Han mob had not been quickly stopped led to suggestions that the police were more concerned with not angering Han residents than protecting Uighurs. There were even rumors that the police and military had played a role in assembling the mob.

Alim was in no doubt of this. “They were shouting slogans. They said Mei Wei Yang Han. It meansExterminate Uighur, Make the Han Stronger. This is not something they say on their own, someone must tell them to say it. Look, this is proof.”

We watched footage of several hundred Han men milling around on the street, most of them armed with sticks, bats, or metal poles. They smoked and talked on their mobiles, obviously waiting for something. (Some of them might simply have been stranded; the city recalled all its buses once the violence began.) This went on for several minutes, during which I caught the occasional flash of a policeman’s blue shirt, the white dome of a soldier’s helmet, always at the edge of the crowd. Perhaps they believed that a group of armed men was a curious sight that only needed to be watched.

The camera panned right and stopped on an army truck. A soldier climbed out the back, holding a metal pole, which he then passed down to the crowd. They yelled and cheered when he passed down another, as if he was awarding a prize.

For Alim, the sight of this soldier handing out two metal poles proved that the army was complicit in the killings. When I suggested that this could have been an isolated incident, he was skeptical. In his eyes, all Han were equally bad.

Though relations between Han and Uighur have rarely been good, it was clear that the July riots had worsened the situation, an assessment that Alim shared. When I asked if he thought the protest should have taken place, he said, “Then we had no choice.” He raised a hand then let it drop. “Now we also have no choice.”

At the time this seemed a gesture of resignation, an admission of defeat. It was a convenient end for the narrative of brutality and protest that our talk suggested. For my part, I believed that the protestors’ anger was legitimate, the result of decades of religious persecution and prejudicial economic policies. The fact that the protest later sparked into violence (albeit with provocation) did not invalidate the reasons for that anger. Having reached this neat conclusion, I was content for our conversation to shift away from the riots. For the next half hour we spoke of literature. Alim said he loved Dostoyevsky “because it shows the mind.” He said that in a Muslim country the people must be educated. “If they do not, it is better that the people do not believe.”

And if I had left then, my memory of Alim would have been quite different. Next day, on a bus heading westward, I would have recalled his anger, his dislike of the Han, but this would have been tempered by the sense that he regretted the events of last July. I would have thought, That is a moderate man.

But then the door opened and another man came in, stocky, clean-shaven, older than Alim—in his mid-30s, perhaps. He greeted us in Uighur then shook hands with me. “This is my friend,” said Alim, in English. “He is good at organizing things.” The man smiled and shrugged, but made no other reply, which made me unsure whether he spoke English. Neither he nor Alim offered his name, for reasons that quickly became clear.

“It is true what I say,” said Alim. “This man can organize 100 people. Sometimes 1,000. Every day I ask him to organize another protest, but he says it is not effective.”

For a moment, I was taken aback that one of the organizers of the July 5 protest was sitting in front of me. It was like meeting a famous person, except that he had to be the opposite of famous, or he wouldn’t have been anywhere except in prison or dead: twenty-six people had already been executed for their part in the riots. If I had been less stunned, I would have asked why he thought it “not effective.” Instead I blurted out what seemed like an innocuous question.

“What do you think the main changes have been since the riots?”

I expected Alim to state the obvious, namely the number of police and soldiers in Urumqi. Instead he said, “The changes? The biggest is that many Chinese respect us now. They are scared of us. They have seen our strength.”

His grin told me what he thought of this, but I asked anyway.

“Yes,” he said. “It is good thing,”

“Are you sure? Don’t you think that things have gotten worse?”

“No,” he said. “They are better. But let me ask you something. What makes you happy?”

He smiled throughout my banal answer, then said, “Did you see the news? About Qinghai?”

I nodded. An earthquake had killed more than a thousand people.

“When I see this I am happy because many Chinese are dead. Maybe it is bad for me, but I am.”

I pointed out that most of the dead were Tibetans, not Han, an objection that did not seem to trouble him. Then he said, “I have a question for you. Do you think the peaceful protest can work?”

“Yes.” It seemed axiomatic.

“I thought so too. But now I do not think so. He does not think so. We try many times but they do not listen. Just arrest and kill our people.”

I tried to formulate reasons why peaceful protest was the only viable means of resistance, but the best argument I could come up with was a negative one. I offered the negligible comfort that the Chinese government treats most protests alike, regardless of the ethnicity of the protestors: demonstrations by Han farmers and unemployed workers have been quashed with as much force as those in Xinjiang. (The exception is when the protestors are prosperous, middle-class citizens. For example, in 2007, a protest in Xiamen against a proposed chemical plant made the government reconsider its plans.) Although this was true, it wasn’t much of an answer. In retrospect, it must have seemed like I was telling Alim that he shouldn’t complain about being oppressed because everyone was oppressed, from which it was only a short step to arguing that oppression was therefore acceptable.

Alim had a good answer for this.

“My brother is in prison now. And he”— Alim indicated the man in the corner —”has been in prison five times in ten years.”

“What for?”

“For nothing. There is no trial, you are not the guilty man, but they keep you for two months, maybe half a year.”

The routine abuse of judicial power in China has been well documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. People “disappear” and are never heard from again. When I lived in Yining, a small town on the Kazakh border, I heard many stories of angry young men like Alim being taken away by the police. Sometimes they were returned to their families after being tortured. Occasionally their bodies were found in the countryside.

Alim shook his head. “The only thing to do is fight. If I had a perfect bomb that could kill 100 or 1,000, I would use it. Or if we have 1,000 Uighurs with AK-47s. If they kill 1,000 Chinese it can work.”

He was almost breathless with excitement. But before he could continue, the stocky man leaned forward and spoke to him in Uighur. Then he turned to me and said, “I am sorry. My English not good. But I will tell him.” The man continued in Uighur, then Alim translated.

“He says we want to go to Afghanistan before. To take several hundred and make a camp. Maybe stay for three, four years and train 1,000 people. We only need to kill 1,000 Chinese and the others will leave.”

“What if they don’t?”

“I think most of them will. If not, we must kill 1,000 more,” he said calmly. “Then they would go. The Chinese are not brave.”

“But isn’t there a difference between ordinary Chinese people and soldiers? What have they done to you?”

“If they are here in Xinjiang, they are guilty, unless they are the sick, women, old, or the child.”

I pointed out that the rioters had killed a number of women.

“That was a mistake.”

“Even if you killed a thousand people, you’d still be outnumbered. And if you start killing ordinary Chinese, the conditions of Uighur people will only get worse.”

“It doesn’t matter, their condition is already low. They are used to the simple life, they can live on three breads a day.”

“What if they retaliate, and kill ordinary Uighurs?”

“Their condition is now so bad. They are already dead.”

His hatred was so implacable that the deaths of thousands of Uighurs seemed an acceptable price. My first instinct was to tell him that this was morally wrong—that whatever the Chinese government had done, it could not justify ethnic cleansing. But the best argument I had against violence was that it wouldn’t work.

“If you start killing Chinese people, it makes it easier for the government to do what it wants. It will be like after September 11th.”

Then, the Chinese government had tried to portray all dissent in the region as a form of Islamist terrorism. On November 14, 2001, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhu Bangzao argued that some Xinjiang separatists had received training in Afghanistan before being sent to China and were being supported by Osama Bin Laden. Though he presented little evidence for this claim, it still muddied the waters. The region went from being an obscure place listed in catalogues of human rights abuses to “a hot bed of Muslim unrest” (AFP), and “China’s restive northwest” (Reuters). I put it to Alim that further acts of terrorism would only diminish support in the US, a prospect that did not trouble him.

“Will they help us? Do they help the Tibetans? They are too scared of the Chinese to do something.”

I could not disagree. There seems no chance that any solution will come as a result of external pressure. Decades of activism and pressure against the Chinese government have had almost no effect on their policies in Tibet.

I asked Alim to imagine how he would feel if thousands of Han Chinese were murdered by his hypothetical army. To his credit, he did consider the question. His tongue explored the sore. Then he leaned back and said, “I would feel better. In Qur’an it says there is life in revenge for killing your brother.”

When I asked which verse that was from, Alim said he did not know. And perhaps it did not matter. That he thought it was from the Qur’an was enough. The organizer leaned forward and spoke to Alim in Uighur. Alim reached into his pocket and took out a pen. The organizer drew an arrow on a piece of paper.

“There are three ways for us,” he said, and drew two more arrows pointing in different directions. “One way,” he said, and then his English ran out. But Alim knew what to say.

“The first way is help from abroad. From America or Britain.” He looked at me pointedly then crossed out the arrow.

“This will not happen. No one will make the Chinese government do something. The second way is peaceful protest. We get closer to government. We hope they change our conditions.”

He drew a line through this.

“The third way is Taliban. In 2010 nothing will happen. But you should be here in 2011. If you are here then, you will see something.”

He put the pen down and sat back, and there was an air of challenge in the gesture, as if daring me to object. But I had no more counterarguments. Although I could not condone terrorism, neither could I pretend that the other options had much chance of success.

“Do you have any other questions?” said Alim.

With a sense of failure, I told him I did not. The organizer shook my hand and left, followed a minute later by Alim and me. Outside it was dark, and the street was unlit. We went in separate directions.

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