Li, a petite, 22-year-old recent university graduate, is one of 1,800 volunteers recruited by the local Communist Party to hand out 100,000 of the stickers, organize public dances in parks and publicize the Chinese government's efforts to ease tensions. "We must make the mutual hatred subside," Li says. "We tell the public that without ethnic unity, nobody will get rich."
The slogan on the yellow stickers is printed in both the Mandarin Chinese and Arabic languages — for the ethnic Chinese and Muslim, or Uighur (WEE-gur), factions that clashed in the streets with stones, knives and clubs on July 5 and for several days afterward, as years of simmering tensions erupted. Around town, numerous red cloth banners proclaim "Ethnic unity is good!" and "Resolutely oppose ethnic separatism!"
The propaganda is part of a broad effort by the Chinese government to move on after the latest, and most severe, spate of social unrest to hit the country during the past year and a half.
Yet many residents in Urumqi say they still fear violence could break out at any time. And even Li is among those questioning whether the continued tensions here reveal something more deeply wrong with her country."It's still dangerous out there. You don't know when someone might jump out and injure you," she says. "What did we do wrong to create such a society?"
Urumqi (uh-ROOM-chee), a city of 2.3 million about 2,050 miles west of Beijing, was long isolated from the rest of the country by its vast deserts and mountain ranges. Even so, its recent story is typical of other troubled parts of China — including Tibet, where similar ethnic riots broke out in March 2008.During the past decade, China's booming economy created an almost insatiable demand for the region's natural resources of oil, gas and coal. That brought a flood of ethnic Chinese immigrants who have taken many jobs and threatened the customs and culture of the Uighurs.
Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur leader who lives in exile in the USA, says the main cause of the riots here was "heavy-handed repression of the Uighur people" by Beijing, particularly during the past 10 years. She told USA TODAY by telephone that the 9/11 attacks have given the Chinese government an even greater pretext to crack down on Muslims, resulting in more restrictions on civil liberties that have angered locals.
Most of those killed in the unrest in Urumqi were ethnic Chinese, or Han. Wang Lequan, the local Communist Party leader, has blamed the violence on Uighur separatists and said last week that police patrols in Urumqi would continue to be intensified, citing the threat from "criminals who attempt to stage terrorist attacks." At least 1,600 people were detained after the riots, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency, and many remain in detention.
As Uighur vendors in the city grill kebabs on open barbecues and hawk watermelons, armed security forces march by with shields, batons and guns, watching for signs of trouble. Internet access in Urumqi is limited, along with most cellphone service and text messaging.
Such crackdowns have become familiar in China recently. Since the Tibet riots, the country also has seen protests after the earthquake in Sichuan province in May 2008, and riots by factory workers who lost their jobs amid the global recession. The government detained numerous dissidents and stepped up Internet censorship to prevent similar displays of unrest at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and again this summer ahead of the 20th anniversary of the failed pro-democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.Sean Roberts, an expert on Uighurs at George Washington University, says the Chinese government "has shown itself very able at short-term control" during the past year. Yet he says the lingering tensions in Urumqi and surrounding Xinjiang province illustrate the shortcomings of such repressive tactics. He predicts the ethnic groups there are on a "collision course" over the long term.
During a four-day trip to Urumqi last week, a USA TODAY reporter witnessed the techniques that the Chinese government is using to try to keep an uneasy peace here:
1. Round them up
Guli Niyaz, 26, should be celebrating the birth of her second child, a son born July 7. Instead, she's worried about her husband, Turgun Aziz, who was detained July 5 as the riots raged.
Niyaz says she had asked her husband to go out to buy chicken. He telephoned an hour later from his mother's house, close to the center of the worst violence, to say they were hiding inside.
He went out later for cigarettes, Niyaz says. That's when she got a desperate phone call from him — and heard voices in the background shouting, "Catch him!" in Mandarin. She hasn't heard from him since.
"I know he is innocent," she says. "He is a mild, thin man, with a bad cough. I hope the police are not beating him in detention."
In contrast to the riots in Tibet, when more than 950 people were detained, the government in Beijing has been quick to announce that defendants will be offered Uighur-speaking defense lawyers. But several Uighurs interviewed by USA TODAY, including Niyaz, said they had not been contacted by anyone representing their imprisoned relatives.
Niyaz stood inside a grocery store surrounded by several female neighbors. "Look how few men are here," she said. "They've all been taken away." As for her own husband, she says: "I want him to see his son."
2. Insist everything is OK
Liu Xianyong, deputy head of propaganda for Urumqi's Communist Party, is proud of his efforts. He recently helped open a photo exhibition called We Are All One Family at Urumqi's museum."We have never put out so many banners before," Liu says. "We are using traditional methods of propaganda, but I am confident they will work, and I am confident there will not be another 'July 5th incident.' "Propaganda in China reached new heights before and during the Olympics, when the government was eager to project a unified image to the world.
Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, says most Uighurs will recognize such efforts as "just empty slogans." Yet among the city's Han, or ethnic Chinese, the exhibits and posters win over more people than many Westerners might think, he says."It seems absurd to us, but in the context of China, they are convincing their own population with most of what they are saying," Bequelin says. "They are turning a crisis into an asset in fostering greater national cohesion and nationalism."
Not everybody's buying the message of harmony, though. "Don't believe what the government says," says Sun Jingsong, 36. "The situation is not back to normal here."Sun, who is ethnic Han, was born in another city in Xinjiang and arrived in Urumqi 12 years ago as a dishwasher. He now owns a chain of restaurants, plus a Buick Regal and a Volkswagen Passat. "I have few Uighur friends — they are anti-Han in their bones," he says. "I will definitely keep my distance from them."
Sun says he now plans to buy a luxury villa at a golf course outside the city to protect himself and his family. Only a few of the golf course's 500 members are ethnic minorities, says Wu Xinghu, a coach there. "I worry there will be another riot," he says.
3. Identify a common enemy
Until last month, the Chinese government usually saved its most hostile invective for the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader whom Beijing accuses of leading a separatist movement. Now, the center of attention has shifted to Rebiya Kadeer, the Uighur leader who lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
Official TV and newspapers in Urumqi and throughout China carry constant condemnations of Kadeer, accusing her of masterminding the riots. Wang, the local party boss, has accused Kadeer of fomenting "the three evil forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism."
State news media have also recently carried interviews with some of Kadeer's children, who still live in China, begging her to stop fomenting separatism in Xinjiang. Kadeer says the government is coercing them into making the pleas and dismisses the tactic as "nothing new."
"My hope is to sit down with the Chinese government to have dialogue," she says. "It is in their interest … to peacefully resolve the situation, or it will get even worse."Meanwhile, the government continues to call Kadeer a threat. A report last week by the state-run Xinhua news agency, citing unidentified security sources, claimed "five organized terrorist attacks on civilians have been prevented" since July 5.
4. Show them the money
Last week, Urumqi announced $791 million in new highway construction over the next two months. That followed an announcement that 300,000 temporary workers would be brought into the area to complement 200,000 locals working on the seasonal cotton harvest.
The efforts are similar to those following riots at factories last winter in Guangdong province, where many workers lost their jobs because of a severe drop in Chinese exports. In that instance, the government announced a series of measures designed to stimulate job creation."
Speeding up development is the best way" to avoid further violence, Xinjiang transport official Wang Xinhua was quoted as saying by the Xinhua news agency.Nursun Kamil, a Uighur who leads a local theater where both Uighurs and ethnic Chinese took shelter during the worst night of violence, says such economic projects probably are the best way to ease tensions over the long term. "We must change the mentality of some young Uighurs, who expect the state or their parents to provide for them," he says.
There are other efforts underway to bring Uighurs into the local economy — but they're controversial.
Last week, the regional government announced a doubling of investment in kindergartens that teach in both Mandarin Chinese and the Uighur language. Nur Bekri, the regional party chairman, was quoted in China Daily saying that non-Mandarin-speaking Uighurs are "relatively isolated from mainstream society" and thus more easily "tricked into terrorist activities."
Li Han, the young volunteer, also is hopeful that prosperity will cure Urumqi's ills. Her group is named the "Snow Lotus" volunteers — for a flower that grows in local mountains but is an endangered species because of its popularity in Chinese medicine.
"Its vitality is strong," she insists. "The snow lotus survives in difficult circumstances. Urumqi, too, will recover and bloom again."