The people of Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region in far northwestern China, don't talk with or about 'the others'. Han Chinese and Uighurs live a world apart in the same city.

Text and Photos: Remko Tanis (2010)

in Urumqi, China

Only after hours of talking Shu Mi (30) feels comfortable enough to just say it outright: "Uighurs are dangerous, have bad habits and follow a violent religion. It will never work between them and us."

The people of Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region in far northwestern China, don't like to talk about 'the others'. Han Chinese Shu Mi and Uighurs Chinese Erdat (23), both born in Urumqi, took a lot of convincing to talk. Separately, of course: Shu in an hours-long drive in his Mitsubishi Outlander, Erdat during lunch in a Uighurs restaurant. Both requested their real names be kept hidden.


"The 2009 riots made me gain weight," Shu complains. He's a mountain guide. "The tourists stay away. It's been a year since I last took a group into the mountains."

He thinks back to the night of 5 July of last year. That's when a crowd of furious Uighurs rioted and attacked Han Chinese in the streets around the Urumqi train station. They felt a deep frustration with how the government suppresses them. XXX people were killed.

Shu: "Last year's violence had a big impact on us. I saw a 70-year old Uighurs woman. She could hardly walk, but she went into the street anyway, approached a wounded Han Chinese lying there and started hitting him with a stick. It was terrifying."

Erdat is one of the few Uighurs who also has friends among Han. "After the riots, we didn't speak for a week. Only then I dared calling them to ask if we were still friends. We had lunch and talked it over. It turned out that on a personal level, there was no conflict between us."

Conflict abound on pretty much any other level, though.

Erdat: "The government keeps Uighurs residents in a weaker position. Even as young children, we get fed this kind of fearful rhetoric. We feel like we are being controlled by another people. There's always someone telling us what we can and cannot do, no matter where we go."

He says Uighurs aren't given any opportunities. "We have to undergo security checks all the time, while Han can just walk around freely. They'll search your bag before you take a bus of walk into a building - even if it's only a KFC."

Uighur residents of Urumqi, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

"You can't say we didn't try it with the Uighurs," says Shu. "The government long respected their tradition to carry around knives everywhere they go. But now they start using them got stab Han. These people are dangerous!"

"As Han, we are buddhists. Our religion is one of peace. But theirs, islam, is aggressive. You can see that wherever islam is present in the world. Just look at the Taliban." He makes a cutting gesture with his fingers across his throat. "The Taliban has islam at the root of its ideology, just like the Uighurs do. That's why things turned violent here last year: because Uighurs are muslims. You know what would be an effective solution? For Beijing to forbid islam in China. It's the cause of all violence."

Erdat: "The government floods us with Han here in Xinjiang. Whenever a Han family decides to move here, they are entitled to free housing, or a free car. Beijing says we should be grateful for the big investments being made in our region. But that money only goes to people from outside Xinjiang. Only Han benefit."

"This area could be the richest in China. There's so much oil and gas in the ground. It should be Xinjiang investing in the rest of China, not the other way around."

Han Chinese residents of Urumqi, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

Shu: "It's time to treat Han and Uighurs equally. We are allowed to have only one child per family. Uighurs, being an ethnic minority, have four or five kids. It would be better to limit them to one child as well."

"As Han, we really don't like anything about the Uighurs. They have bad habits. They smell," he says, pointing at his armpits. "Makes you wonder if they even have a bath in their homes. Oh, and they drink, even though islam forbids alcohol. After drinking they get especially vicious."

Shu stops his car at one of the many military checkpoints surrounding Urumqi. "These are to stop Uighurs terrorists entering the city from south Xinjiang. As buddhists, we believe these terrorists will not just end up in hell. They'll be send to the eightieth floor of hell - as deep as you can go!"

There's really only one thing Erdat and Shu agree on: things are quiet now in Urumqi. Erdat: "Uighurs would be crazy to try anything. Even when we don't see any police around, we don't talk about these things. It's too dangerous."