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A year after unrest, Xinjiang calmer

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN
Armed police keep watch in Urumqi, China, on Monday, the first anniversary of deadly unrest in the Xinjiang  region.
Armed police keep watch in Urumqi, China, on Monday, the first anniversary of deadly unrest in the Xinjiang region.
  • On the surface, life in the region seems calm a year later
  • Unrest between Han Chinese and Turkic-speaking Uyghurs has deep roots
  • Last year's violence was the deadliest ethnic unrest to hit China in decades
  • Government outlines development plan for resource-rich region
  • China

Beijing, China (CNN) -- One year after violent ethnic riots rocked Urumqi, life in the capital city of the Xinjiang region seems calmer, at least on the surface.

"It's relatively normal," says a resident who asked to remain anonymous. He says that's largely because of heightened police security. "Fewer people go out at night but it's okay during daytime," he tells me in a long-distance telephone interview. "Police patrol 24 hours a day, and many CCTV (closed circuit) cameras have been installed in important places, especially in Uyghur populated areas."

Another long time resident of Urumqi, an ethnic Han Chinese, owns a small store in the Great Bazaar, a shopping area which witnessed some of the worst ethnic violence in the city. To date, he says, local tourism has yet to recover from last year's downturn. "At this time, usually you'd see rows of tour buses park in the area," he said. "Now there are two or three. Restaurant businesses are down too."

Ethnic tensions run deep in this sparsely populated, resource-rich region. After decades of in-migration by the majority Han Chinese, the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs make up only 46 percent of the region's population. Uyghurs complain they are subjected to discrimination by the Han Chinese, despite government promises of equal rights and ethnic harmony.

Over a year ago, a bloody clash broke out between Uyghur and Han workers at a toy factory in the southern Chinese city of Shaoguan, hundreds of miles away from Urumqi. Two Uyghur workers were said to have died during the brawls. Days later, on July 5, hundreds of Uyghurs demonstrated in Urumqi, calling for an investigation of the Shaoguan Incident and complaining about ethnic discrimination. In a few hours, the protest escalated into violent street riots that mainly targeted Han Chinese.

The Chinese government claimed the riots were instigated from overseas by the World Uyghur Congress and its exiled leader Rebiya Kadeer. She denied the charges, saying the protests were triggered by ethnic discrimination.

I was one of the journalists who rushed to Urumqi last year to cover the story. We found the city in a lockdown amid heightened ethnic tensions. Local police had declared a curfew and set up checkpoints at major intersections. Soon, battalions of Chinese military troops, some heavily armed, poured into the city.

Many of them were deployed to create a buffer zone between the clashing Uyghur and Han residents. For several days, tensions on both sides remained high. While nervous Uyghurs ran for cover from the government crackdown and Han reprisals, hundreds of angry Han Chinese, some wielding sticks and knives, paraded the streets, calling for government protection and vowing "revenge." A few times, we almost got caught in the middle of potentially ugly clashes.

The official death toll reached 197, with 1,700 injured. It was the deadliest ethnic unrest to hit China in decades.

Over the past year, the Chinese government has taken several measures to create a sense of normalcy.

After the riots, police quickly rounded up suspected "criminals" and "separatists." Nearly 1,500 people were detained and, by March, 198 people were given long prison sentences, 25 death sentences. Of those, 23 were Uyghurs.

Since then, the government has scaled back some of its harsh measures. It has, for example, restored full Internet and text-messaging access in the region after limiting or blocking it for 10 months. In April, Beijing named Zhang Chunxian as Xinjiang's party chief, replacing Wang Lequan, a hard-line Communist Party apparatchik who held the post for several years.

Last May, China's top leaders met in Beijing and outlined a blueprint for Xinjiang's 10-year (2011-2020) development. It calls on the government to pour in around 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) in economic aid to boost local development and raise the living standard of Uyghur minorities. "Maintaining social stability and achieving fast-track development are our twin priorities," Chinese president Hu Jintao told the meeting.

In June, China announced plans to impose a 5 percent energy tax on oil and natural gas produced in Xinjiang. Experts say it is aimed at boosting local government revenues and creating more jobs, but some Urumqi residents are still unsure how it will work for them. "That's a welcome step," says the shop-keeper in Urumqi. "But we don't really know how the extra income will be used. Will economic development trickle down? Will all groups benefit, or only the minority groups?"

Urumqi residents -- Han Chinese and Uyghurs as well -- this time may be asking the same questions.