The worst ethnic violence in the history of communist China has created a deep rift through Urumqi.

Text and Photos: Remko Tanis (2010)

in Urumqi, China

Things seem to be running along just fine in Urumqi. The capital of Xinjiang, a region in far northwestern China, resembles any other Chinese city. There's the nonstop honking of cars, smoking vendors in their street kiosks, pedestrians shouting into their phones.

Dime a dozen.

Until you turn the corner at Youhao South Street and are met by two groups of marching Chinese soldiers. Their automatic rifles point towards the ground. Around their arms hang man-sized shields.

Soldiers in the streets of Urumqi, Xinjiang, China (C) Remko Tanis

Not far from there, on the Yangtze River Street, three military trucks drive slowly through traffic. Two of them carry armed soldiers in the back.

Apparently, Urumqi isn't like any other Chinese city.

The number of security forces here has risen sharply over the past two weeks. On Monday it will have been a year since a crowd of angry Uighurs attacked Han Chinese near the train station, frustrated by how they feel the government treats them.

During these ethnic riots, the most lethal in the history of communist China, almost two hundred people died - mainly Han. 1,700 people were injured.

"Unite. Be harmonious. Create new paths." says a slogan on one of the hundreds of red banners hanging around the city. This week saw the start of a program in Urumqi's education system, called 'love the great motherland'.

Urumqi, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

Billboards show minorities dancing happily in traditional costume, as if nothing's going on. The banner texts read: 'Ethnic people, unite!', 'Let us raise the flags of patriotism and ethnic unity!' and 'Let's fight ethnic separation together'.

Great sounding words, that couldn't be further removed from the reality of the streets they're having in.

Urumqi is deeply divided. Han Chinese and Uighurs residents each live in their own neighborhoods. They go to the restaurants of their own group, shop at their own stores.

They even live in separate time zones. The Han adhere to the official Beijing time even though the Chinese capital is 2,400 kilometers east from here.

The Uighurs in Urumqi set their clocks two hours behind Beijing time, more closely following the sun's position.

Soldiers guarding the road to a mosque in Urumqi, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

Soldiers guarding the road to a mosque in Urumqi, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

Fear and mistrust sit deep in the hearts of the 2.5 million people of Urumqi. Military guard posts surround their city, claiming to be ready to intercept terrorists.

Hardly anyone dares to speak of the ethnic violence of a year ago and how it has impacted life since. Little is needed to attract the attention of security forces in the city, so Han and Uighurs prefer to not do anything out of the ordinary. It's the one thing they have in common.