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Resentment simmers in West China

world Updated: Sep 06, 2010 00:04 IST
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The five-star hotels are full, bulldozers are making quick work of dreary slums and billboards for "French-style villas" call out to the nouveau riche. In the year since rioting between the Han and Uighur ethnic groups killed nearly 200 people in this city in far western China, life appears to be returning to normal.

"Don't worry, everything is peaceful now," said the perky bellhop at a hotel in the city's predominantly Han Chinese quarter.

But before turning away, he had second thoughts. "You'd better not go to the Uighur part of town at night," he said.

Beneath the gloss and mercantile buzz of Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, there is a palpable unease that neither tens of thousands of surveillance cameras nor the patrolling squads of black-shirted police officers can completely assuage.

Since July 2009, when rampaging Uighur mobs set upon Han Chinese with iron bars and bricks — a scene that was reversed for several days when Han vigilantes sought revenge — the Chinese authorities have arrested hundreds and tried to soothe frayed nerves with a $1.5 billion spending package, a change in local leadership and a barrage of uplifting slogans strung across public buses and highway overpasses.

But the feel-good propaganda and revved-up economy have so far done little to repair the mutual distrust. And experts say the government's "strike hard" campaign, which has led to the secret detention of perceived troublemakers and the execution of at least nine people accused of having a hand in the bloodshed, has worsened tensions.

"I don't think a single Uighur is convinced that the government is acting in their interests," said Dru C. Gladney, a professor of Asian studies at Pomona College in California who studies the region. "In fact, the hostile environment is making people feel embattled and resentful."

Given the heightened surveillance here, it is not always easy to tease out unvarnished sentiments from either the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority, or the Han, who make up 96 percent of China's population. But with patience and the promise of anonymity, raw resentments emerge.