LUKQUN — When a dozen attackers used sabres to kill 34 people last month in the Kunming train station, the Chinese press dubbed it the nation's own "9/11."
Beijing authorities have blamed Uyghur separatists coming from Xinjiang, an autonomous region of northwest China. Not surprisingly, when the Malaysia Airlines plane disappeared with 153 Chinese passengers on board, alleged "Uyghur terrorists" became the target once again.
The picture changes, however, when one heads north to Xinjiang, where ethnic conflicts have shaken the isolated region in recent years, as the Uyghur struggle has come head-to-head with a crushing Chinese military occupation.
Police patrols, tanks, troops and checkpoints are scattered along rural stretches of the ancient Silk Road. The megacity Urumqi, meanwhile, could rightfully be called the capital of video surveillance. After inter-ethnic riots in 2009, thousands of cameras were installed throughout the city's public spaces. On the roads, every 20 meters, security gates film every passing car, bicycle and pedestrian.
It took us some time to find someone who would speak to us, but we finally met Sidik. (His name has been changed.) Since he retired, this former teacher says he feels less controlled, though he cannot stop himself from looking at every person walking by us.
"Spies are everywhere," he says, lowering his voice. "Out of every 5 Uyghur, at least 2 are informers. Why? For money: they can earn 1.800 RMB ($290) per month, plus 300 RMB ($48) everytime they inform on someone."
At every corner, one can begin to identify informers monitoring the pedestrians and reporting anything unusual to the local police. "There is also a bonus for the police officers themselves everytime a 'terrorist' is identified," assures Sidik, "But a so-called 'terrorist' may be just a petty thief. It can get out of control and young men sometimes do not get out alive."
A cover-up in Lukqun?
But there was a major incident ten months ago that until now has gone largely unreported. On June 26, 2013, in the village of Lukqun, southeast of Urumqi, 37 were killed in clashes between locals and the authorities. According to Chinese television, it was an attack led by "fanatical jihadist terrorists" who wanted to "spread hatred and chaos in a pacific region." The media talked about connections to Syrian terrorists but did not mention any ethnic conflict. In the following days and weeks, any foreign journalist who tried to go there was denied access.
Last month, we managed to enter Lukqun, managing to evade the checkpoints that still block access. Once inside the village, nobody wanted to answer our questions at first. Only a young wine-grower nodded when we asked him to confirm the number of casualties. "Many, many villagers were killed," he added.
In another village, a young Uyghur farmer named Emin and another young man recounted the same facts. What they say triggered the attack was the arrest of a group of young women who had gone out in public wearing veils, although it is forbidden to do so by law.
After their husbands came to the police station, the discussion escalated and men from both sides were killed, villagers recount. Other Muslims decided to attack the "pagan", i.e. the Han Chinese officers, before a more widespread rebellion by the locals. Authorities responded by calling in "special forces," led by tanks and helicopters that locals say fired indiscriminately at villagers, killing and injuring dozens. For 10 days, the village was cut off from the rest of the world and nobody heard of this incident.
Foreigners in their own country
The dissident writer Wang Lixiong is one of the rare Han Chinese who knows and loves the people of Xinjiang. A high rate of unemployment, economic marginalization, religious repression and cultural humiliation: these were caused by the political measures Beijing imposed on the region, Wang argues.
The development of the oil industry in the region should have helped the Uyghur but instead, only the Han have benefited from it, prompting even more to come to settle in Xinjiang. In 1949, the Han made up 7% of the whole population. Today, it's nearly 40%.
"If the Chinese authorities continue to antagonize them, there will be even more extremists," says Wang. "Xinjiang risks turning into the Chechnya of China."