Minute and 100 Metres
Down the Road
David Maney Photos by the author (click to enlarge)
Urumqi, Xinjiang, Sept. 3, 2009
soldier outside the station had one hand on the barrel and the other
on the butt of his shotgun. There were two military trucks by the
bus stop and two soldiers in the back-right seats of every bus leaving
Welcome to west China.
I arrived via long-haul train, 40 hours and just under 4000km in a
hard-seat, from Beijing, where rumours were circulating about the
extent of the military presence, needle attacks, Uighur and Han street
gangs, and the validity of the reports coming out of Xinjiang. After
four days I left with more doubts about why ethnic tensions in Urumqi
arose and how they could be resolved.
Out the window of the taxi all I could see was another typical Chinese
city: wide roads waiting for traffic from increased car sales; cranes
brooding over new buildings. Red banners with white writing were strung
up in the trees that lined the road, welcoming guests to the 18th
Urumqi Trade Fair with slogans such as “Solidarity, Friendship,
Co-operation and Development”.
After the July 5th riots that resulted in 197 official fatalities
it was reported that Internet, international calls, and SMS had been
temporarily suspended. That temporary suspension was still in place
at the start of September. With the Internet out and news services
not trusted Urumqi was running on rumour.
From my room I could hear a commotion on the street. I walked out
and watched four young men waving Chinese flags lead a protest march
down Youhao Road into the centre of town. There were as many spectators
The protest was held by Han Chinese who wanted the government to provide
greater security measures to protect them against hypodermic needle
attacks by the Uighur. In incidents of needle attacks there had been
no reported cases of infection or poisoning.
In Beijing official reports about needle attacks were never far from
being rumours about Han children being attacked outside the school
gate. For the Han such a rumour builds solidarity against the Uighur
both in Urumqi and outside Xinjiang. But how does the rumour help
or hinder the Uighur? Could it provide protection through fear? Show
that they will not be out-numbered in – or out-muscled out of
– Urumqi? Or will it incite more violence and acts of retribution?
At present it seems the Uighur’s greatest fear would be losing
the sympathetic ear of the international community.
A minute and a hundred metres down the road the protesters were blocked
at a main intersection by riot police and military standing in front
of twenty trucks, with more reinforcements arriving.
Protesters would push against the blockade. Those behind them would
raise their camera-phones. In turn, the military would hold their
line while police behind them took photos with a long lens, atop a
police van, or on the ground with an over-the-shoulder video camera.
The immediate threat of physical injury was surpassed by the permanent
threat that comes from having your picture taken. Large numbers of
Han protesters stayed away from the front line, preferring to watch
from the side. Those who did venture forward had heated conversations
but not physical altercation with police, most of whom were Han Chinese.
The military were also Han Chinese, but due to over-stretched resources
of the Xinjiang National Guard, they came from outside Urumqi.
After trying to push straight through the blockade for an hour the
protesters turned right, breaking into smaller groups that followed
Chinese flags crossing the bridge in the distance.
Sellers sold grapes on the sidewalk. Parents stood with their children
behind school gates.
A pair of young men stopped a small car. While one stayed in front
of the bumper the other circled. If my camera were as quick as my
eye I could have caught the moment the man’s rage turned from
the Uighur owner to his small red car. After several kicks at the
side-panels a crowd gathered and the man at the bumper stepped around
and smashed the passenger-side window. Other protesters pulled the
aggressors away and waved on those who wanted to dwell. The car sped
off, and a different pair of young men – one with a tiny megaphone,
the other with a flag of China – came back to pick up the stragglers.
By the time numbers broke on to the Afforestation Square a line of
soldiers three rows deep, with riot helmets and shields had formed
to protect the pillars of the 12-floor symmetrical City Government
building. The crowd’s chants seemed to echo from inside the
The mayor urged people to disperse via a big screen TV that overlooked
the square. The same ten-minute recorded message was shown many times
in the afternoon and evening.
I was encouraged and sometimes physically pushed towards the front
line to take photos. “You’re safe, you’re safe,”
the middle-age man urged me. He had just asked me if I was religious
– I’m not – before telling me “All Uighur
are Islamic terrorists”. In someone’s second language
their political and religious views lose their subtlety.
As the sun set I watched a mother prompt her daughter to pose in front
of the military line so she could take a photo of her.
Within an hour police and soldiers outnumbered the protesters. Finally,
there was nothing left to do but push against the military line. This
lasted no more than half an hour before people moved on to get off
the streets before dark. The buses had been turned over to the military
to shuttle soldiers around the city.
On Friday morning there were no cars on the street and trucks, soldiers,
fences and wire barricades at every main intersection. All roadblocks
in the south of the city encircled the Grand Bazaar, facing out –
the implication being that the Han Chinese would infiltrate and retaliate
in the Uighur area. Most of the remaining Uighur populace (12% of
the 2.3 million people who live in Urumqi) live or shop in this area.
I could judge the danger of neighborhood by the level of security:
from road spikes, to eight-foot high fences with row on row of thirty
centimetre spikes sticking out, to soldiers in fitted carbon-fibre
riot gear, complete with a clapping cod-piece. It was an awkward moment
when I was joined by eleven of these soldiers at the public urinal.
The number of people on the streets was up on Saturday. More shops
were open and a greater flow of traffic was allowed through the roadblock
checkpoints. I could play 8-ball on one of the tables by the street.
I even gambled on a game with pool-shark and won a watermelon.
There were still, however, suspicious looks from those on street corners
wearing shop-issue military outfits and sporting red armbands. By
facial characteristics I would assume that these community corner
soldiers (usually middle-aged women in cross-trainers) and patrols
(upwards of four or five men carrying rubber clubs) were Han. Although
their role remained unexplained, I was told that the military was
“limited” in what they could do.
If my stubble had the makings of a moustache the Chinese mistook me
for a Russian, and Uighurs thought I was one of them. When locals
saw my pen and notebook I had to explain in broken English that I
was not a journalist: “I’m a lyricist. A song
(operatic gesture) writer (scribble gesture).” Eventually
I would give in and click my fingers and croon a couple of lines.
I guess I passed.
Over dinner other travelers talked about camera settings and being
arrested by the police (though the word we should use is ‘detained’.
On my last day I climbed the famous Red Cliff and looked out on Urumqi,
just another Chinese city under construction: a four-lane highway
being turned into eight lanes; another square dirt hole being dug
to fit another square peg into the Urumqi skyline.
Everyday scenes played out as usual, even if the costumes were out
of place: fruit dealers wore the military gear, other street-walkers
wore the police uniform, and even the headdresses of some Uighur women,
while lovely flower patterns, were military camouflage colours.
Tensions had eased. In the centre of town a UTV television crew was
filming in front of a road-block, asking questions of people who were
more than happy to stop and answer, even if the return of traffic
noise from cars, buses and bikes made it hard to hear them.
Only three days after the protest Urumqi had its buzz back, but everything
out west is far from normal.
Maney writes journalism, short stories, plays, and song lyrics for
musician alison avron. You can find him online at
or at any good local bookstore.
seeks more Asian encounters for this new occasional online feature.
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