Taxi Ride in Xinjiang Reveals Ethnic Strains

By Jonah M. Kessel

December 23, 2014 1:19 am December 23, 2014 1:19 amMore than half a century since China started pumping oil in its arid west, tensions continue to rise over inequality and ethnicity in Karamay, which is now one of the country’s wealthiest cities.

Video by Jonah M. Kessel on Publish Date December 20, 2014. Photo by Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times.In “On the Silk Road, Oil and Tensions,” The New York Times video journalist Jonah M. Kessel explores the ethnic tensions amid the energy abundance of Xinjiang. Below, he describes an encounter during his journey.“Could you take me to a Uighur neighborhood?” I asked my taxi driver in Karamay, an oil-rich city in the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang.Like many foreign reporters visting this area, I had been hearing “no” and “not possible” a lot, regardless of what questions I asked. However, my driver, a woman who gave her surname as Zhu, said she knew a Uighur neighborhood and begrudgingly agreed to take me there.The Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim people, are native to this region. Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, though, their stake in their homeland has been shrinking. Jobs and state policy have drawn millions of Han, China’s dominant ethnic group, to Xinjiang.According to the Council on Foreign Relations, in 1949 the Han made up only 6.7 percent of Xinjiang’s population. By 2008 that number had jumped to 40 percent. In Karamay, though, they represent about 80 percent, leaving the Uighurs a marginalized minority.Ms. Zhu is a Han who moved to the city from the central province of Henan five years ago. She seemed uneasy about driving me into this part of the city. Clashes between the two ethnic groups have been abundant in recent years, as many Uighurs complain of restrictions on their cultural and religious expression. Hundreds of people in Xinjiang have died in the violence this year alone.I had traveled to the area to make a short video about the relationship between energy and ethnicity along what President Xi Jinping has called the New Silk Road, linking the economies of China and Central Asia as well as points farther west. Although my requests for an official visit to Karamay’s oil fields were denied, the effects of China’s energy expansion plans were all around me.Ms. Zhu is one of the many Han chasing the new opportunities that abound in Karamay. But in her taxi was a reminder of the ethnic frictions that have accompanied the economic drive.

Displayed on the dashboard was a sign with photographs of people in a spectrum of ethnic dress. On the left, under the words “Traditional clothing of Uighur women,” were images of women in head scarves and embroidered caps.On the right, however, under the words “These abnormal ‘five types’ of people are forbidden to access public places,” were women in more concealing jilbabs, burqas and hijabs, as well as young men with full beards and T-shirts bearing crescent stars and moon symbols.These were, supposedly, the telltale signs of Islamist extremism. The local government had issued the signs to indicate what kinds of dress are now acceptable on public transportation and in taxis or for visiting public places like shopping malls.Ms. Zhu said the tightening rules were having an effect.“Five years ago, there were a lot of people dressing like that, wearing veils and only exposing their faces,” she said. “Now the government regulates this strictly, so there aren’t so many.”She welcomed the change. As we pulled up to a crumbling Uighur neighborhood, she said, “When I first came here, I was afraid when I saw people dressing like that.”I exited the taxi. Ms. Zhu lost no time in speedily driving off.Sarah Li contributed research.

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