Photo/IllutrationMany shops in the center of Urumqi sport Chinese flags. (Yoshikazu Hirai)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

URUMQI, China--Urumqi in northwestern China is a city transformed in the 10 years since bloody rioting erupted between ethnic minority Uighurs and Han Chinese in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

July 5 marks the 10th anniversary of the Urumqi Riots that are thought to have claimed at least 197 lives, and perhaps many more.

Groups of Han Chinese set upon Muslim Uighur co-workers at a toy factory and two were killed.

Street protests held in Urumqi over the incident provoked a violent reaction from Chinese authorities, and widespread rioting followed.

The violence was one of the bloodiest in China since the crackdown against pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The relationship between the Chinese government and the Uighurs was forever changed. Uighur people now live in fear.

In late June, Chinese flags were hoisted around the international bazaar, a tourism facility opened in the center of Urumqi in 2018.

It was where security forces and Uighurs clashed 10 years ago. Many areas where Uighurs lived were redeveloped after the riots.

The entrance to a traffic-free zone is now blocked by safety inspection gates manned by armed police.

An Uighur man who runs a food shop said many tourists visit now and "the area is flourishing.”

But off the main drag, the atmosphere in the narrower streets and alleyways is totally different and dotted with tiny Uighur-run shops. Piles of rubble are evident.

An Uighur man running a small hotel said, “Many Uighurs used to live here, but they were forced to move out and their homes were destroyed.”

When an Asahi Shimbun reporter was asking questions, three police officers approached with black shields. They stood behind the reporter in a menacing manner.

The Uighur man suddenly went silent, looking downward.

A surveillance camera mounted at the entrance to the hotel captured the moment.

The main street of Urumqi is now dotted with new buildings and tourism facilities. But all the back streets remain under heavy surveillance.

The contrast between the city's bright and dark sides is startling.

The residential areas that were inhabited by Uighurs were resettled by Han Chinese, and the process is accelerating.

Northern Urumqi used to host many migrant Uighur workers. After the riots, the authorities forced the Uighurs to move out and constructed high-rise apartments. Most of the residents are Han Chinese.

Old and low-rise residential complexes still exist close by where Uighurs live. But residents cannot get in or out without passing the safety inspection barrier. The entire area is surrounded by wire fences.

A 22-year-old female Uighur college student who lives there said in fluent Chinese, “Uighurs who want a better life have to get stable employment. I am studying for civil servant examinations.”

She wore a black face mask throughout the conversation, so it was difficult to gauge her facial expression.

The government led by the Chinese Communist Party clearly still fears that Islamic extremism could trigger calls for independence.

After the riots, armed groups staged one attack after another. The government concluded they were committed by extremist groups aiming for Uighur independence and became more oppressive.

The crackdown was intended to re-educate Uighurs in customs and beliefs so as to eradicate any moves toward extremism in the future.

The Chinese government spent 279 million yuan (4.4 billion yen, or $40 million) on expanding the activities of the Xinjiang Islamic Institute, a training school for Islamic religious leaders, in 2017.

For example, Uighurs who move to Urumqi to learn to become religious figures who will support the 25,000 mosques in this autonomous region in the future are provided with free housing.

Students at the school are obliged to study Chinese laws as part of their Islamic studies.

A new trend is for couples to call themselves husband and wife based on a marriage contract under Islamic laws called “Nikah.” The school makes sure they submit the marriage registration to public offices in accordance with Chinese laws.

“Any kind of religious activities must be done under the law," said Abudurehep Turmniaz, the school's dean. "'Chinazation’ is not a strange thing at all.”

(The article was written by Kanako Miyajima, Yoshikazu Hirai and Takashi Funakoshi)