In Urumqi, the capital of China’s northwestern province Xinjiang, residents are still recovering from a violent riot five summers ago between the minority Turkic Muslims — the Uighurs — and the majority Han people.
A Uighur protest against discrimination turned into violent backlash against Han people, the victims of whom were mostly Han store owners and bystanders. The government reported that 197 people died, but witnesses say that number is far greater.
Even today, the tension is palpable. But its roots go way back, before the radical Islamic separatists and before the policies of the Communist government. Rather, the backdrop of the issue is thousands of years of repressive history that created deep socioeconomic disparities between the Uighurs and the Hans.
After the Cultural Revolution, the People’s Republic of China deemed all 56 Chinese ethnic groups as equal, with equal rights. In turn, ethnic minorities attained certain legal privileges. For instance, Uighur families are not subject to the only child law and can have up to three kids. Affirmative action measures offer minority students extra points on the formidable college entrance exam. Other laws require corporations and institutions to have a Uighur cafeteria, as Islam prohibits the consumption of pork.
Faruke, an English-speaking Uighur employee of a transportation company, said the Chinese state preaches equality but has not allowed it to manifest. He called the government “cosmetic artists.”