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Urumqi is a Police State

Urumqi is a city that appears to be under siege, and in many ways it is.

There were tanks in the streets. There was no war, there was no mass uprising; they were neither providing defense from an invasion nor where they invading themselves. It was just normal, everyday Urumqi — a city at ready to defend China from itself.

The downtown portion of Urumqi was completely militarized. The white tanks were set up at long intervals on busy streets, creating temporary outpost for contingents of military police, who stood around them dressed in full camo with automatic rifles, glaring intensely at everyone walking by. Defensive fortifications, which amounted to portable black steel cages draped in cheap plastic camouflage foliage, were set up every 200 or so meters in front of banks, public attractions, and on street corners. These cages could be set up within minutes and could enclose five to ten military police officers, who would stand back to back within them in tight circles, watching the streets. At the entrance of every shop, restaurant, and hotel was a security guard with riot gear — shield, baton, and helmet. The security presence was everywhere, everyone was being sized up.

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The publicly posted paramilitary police themselves were merely kids who appeared to be in their late teens to early twenties, but they did their jobs with overzealous vigor, screaming at me when I would take their photo. For my part, not including them in the frame was a challenge, as they were virtually everywhere.

I’d been in post-war Iraq, pre-rebellion Syria, and other destabilized regions of the world, and I’ve never found a public area so militarized, so on-guard against a potential enemy — and making such a big show of it. The people of Urumqi simply flowed around these ubiquitous military bastions as though they were as normal as newspaper stands or road construction signs, but this didn’t mean that there wasn’t an overt air of tensions here. Street life was keep in full motion, few people lingered around, their movements were purposeful, moving quickly from one place to another. While I wouldn’t say that nervousness or fear pervaded the air, there was something stifling about this place that was very much unlike any of the country’s other provincial capitals, which even at their worst are vibrant, kinetic urban entities. Urumqi was seeming like it had the social pulse of a highway.

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Then I went to the Uighur part of town by the Grand Bazaar. The militarization was completely absent. There was apparently no reason to defend the Uighurs from the Uighurs, and the streets here were full of life. People were sitting outside of shops talking, the markets were full of pedestrians, the street stalls were packed with people socializing. There was the sounds of voices and the rumble of street commerce. People were eating ice cream; the vendors smiled and called people over to try what they were selling. Women inspected lengths of cloth, children ran around, men sat in small groups chatting. They would see me and yell for me to come over and then introduced themselves. It was a very different city.

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Although the militarization of the Han part of Urumqi — though seeming excessive — was not without basis. Sects of Uighurs separatists have been revolting against the Chinese authorities for centuries. They fought against the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China, Chinese warlords, and against the PRC throughout its entire history, infuriating Mao, Deng, Jiang, Hu, and Xi. In recent years they’ve often resorted to terrorist tactics, bombing markets, hacking random people to death in train stations, attacking police stations, driving vehicles into crowds before blowing them up, taking hostages, all out rioting, and multiple attempts to hijack airplanes — just two days ago they attacked a police checkpoint in Kashgar, killing 18 people. Urumqi was often the target of these attacks.

Militant or even separatist Uighurs are in the extreme minority, but the general hard line Chinese response against this murderous fringe has in and of itself created additional discontent throughout many spheres of the culture. It is not uncommon to hear Uighurs complaining bitterly about Chinese rule, but that which they most complain about are relatively recent policies designed to crack down on extremism — which amounted to a crack down on Uighur culture, religion, and daily life. Religious worship is highly regulated. In some cities Muslim dress, such as the growing of beards and the wearing of head scarves are banned. Fasting for Ramadan is often interfered with and is banned for government workers. Traditional Uighur neighborhoods are regularly disbanded, the people forcibly relocated to apartment complexes, and their homes demolished. The Chinese government is sucking natural resources out of the area with little benefit going to the local people. Some places are turning into environmental wastelands. The cities have been turned into military zones. The Chinese government had promised a heavy handed response to terrorism, and they’ve delivered, but this has so far amounted to intensifying discontent and radicalization, as they pound the detonator of the culture as a whole:

What China’s leadership still does not seem to recognize, however, is that harsher crackdowns only serve to ignite these explosions in the first place. They need to understand that the Uyghur ethnic identity they’ve been pounding down on so hard is effectively becoming a detonator, before it’s too late to cut the fuse of the bomb they themselves have packed.

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As far as rightful claim to Xinjiang is concerned, this is of course a complicated subject that is artfully simplified in the propaganda of both sides. China says Xinjiang was mostly a part of China for a very long time — with some Chinese even suggesting a name change, as Xinjiang literally means “new territory” and linguistically undermines China’s historic claim to rule. While Uighur separatists, along with many of the general Uighur public, say that Xinjiang is their native territory and the Chinese are invaders. Both are as incorrect as they are correct, as the truth weaves a nice path between the two extremes.

The movement of peoples through Central Asia for the past 2,000 years has been extreme. This area has always been a busy crossroads of humanity. We’re looking at successive and overlapping empires of Persians, Turks, Arabs, Mongols, Russians, and Chinese. For the record, the Turkic peoples who would eventually be called the Uighurs were not early arrivals to Xinjiang. The Han Chinese were there nearly a thousand years before them — and this is not the revisionist Chinese view.

The Han Dynasty had military colonies set up in Xinjiang as early as 120 BCE and the Tang Dynasty formally controlled the area for an extended amount of time. Successive occupations of Mongols, Kazakh, Uzbek, Manchu, and Hui peoples came through as well. The rule of China would again exert itself in the Qing Dynasty, where masses of Han were relocated to the state farms of Dzungaria (a non-Uighur area) and Urumqi, a city that was founded by the Han and Hui. This was a position that would only be lost briefly during the tumultuous time of China’s Republican period, where Uighur separatists finally came to power in Kashgar. But it was short lived. They would be overthrown a year later by a Chinese warlord, who himself was eventually overthrown by a Russian backed puppet-government. Although shortly after the Communist coming to power in 1949 the Xinjiang area again fell under the authority of China, as it has remained.

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Although the argument that Han Chinese have “invaded” the region with settlers does hold some weight. Although roughly one third of Xinjiang’s population during the Qing Dynasty were Han, their numbers dropped to 6.7% by 1949. At this time, 75% of the population were Uighur, and the rest was made up of Kazakhs, Huis, Mongols, and others. Now the Han population is up to 40% and counting, while the proportion of Uighurs has fallen to 45%. While much of this western Han migration was government coordinated through the 1950s-70s, migration in this era is predominately self-determined — people are moving west in search of opportunity — and this has created a situation where recently arrived Han compete with the long standing Uighur population for jobs and business opportunities. Although some studies suggest that the former are often poor and uneducated themselves, and are often not in as advantageous of a position as they are touted to be in, the numbers tell the reality of the situation: in a 2005 survey it was found that on average Uighurs make less than half of what the Han make in Xinjiang, and 50% don’t have more than an elementary education.

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While few groups of people on earth are truly indigenous to anywhere, historic connections to geographic territory is often used to legitimize claims to this territory in the present. Both the Chinese and Uighurs have exerted historic claims to Xinjiang, but the “we were here first” argument is always arbitrary — in almost every case there were people on the land before the arrival of any groups claiming homeland status. Ultimately, the right to rule is all too often the power to rule; territory changing hands through time, people migrating en masse and taking over new areas is the rule of human history. But the opposing reaction is rarely ever peaceful. Hence the tanks.

Filed under: Articles, China, New Silk Road, Xinjiang

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3490 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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4 comments… add one

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  • Niccolo June 25, 2015, 12:08 pm

    Every country and city always has a problem with different ethnic groups quarelling each other. The Muslim ghettos of the beautiful city of Paris are virtually no go zones for the police. The recent “black riots” in American cities like Ferguson and Maryland against “white” police brutality are a reminder that no polity or government that have large hostile ethic minorities, not even Western governments easily pacify ethnic minorities that refuse to assimilate to the dominant ethnic group

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    • AuggieEast June 29, 2015, 10:30 pm

      How can you compare Paris, where the Muslims are the newcomers being asked to assimilate to the larger culture to Urumqi, where the Han Chinese are the newcomers, yet are asking the locals to assimilate to their cultures? Apples and oranges, my friend.

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      • VagabondJourney December 5, 2015, 3:04 pm

        Urumqi is a Han city. What is now Xinjiang is traditionally two different areas, the south being primarily Uighur and the north being Han and other ethnicities.

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      • nepali hercules December 30, 2015, 8:57 am

        han chinese are not the new comers. all you have to do is look around, what are muslim people doing in the middle of asian territory? they were invaders, just like the white people in america. the natives were there first, and trust me the chinese were there first, after all it’s china and not turkey

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