They swooped before dawn. Roads were cut off, police sirens whirred and more than one hundred menacing green trucks of the People’s Liberation Army started to patrol the streets of Yining in the west of Xinjiang province. Guns toted from flaps in the roof and riot shields formed walls at the back of the vehicles. They travelled in packs, slowly and deliberately, so that no one could miss their significance.
Taxi drivers scratched their heads. Long haul buses had to drop passengers in the outskirts of this multiethnic city that sits nearer to Almaty than Beijing. Citizens woke up confused, dazed as their normal walk to work was shut. The eighth of the eighth in 2008, a day when China was to show its friendly, polished face to the world would also turn out to be the single most repressive day of my life.
Xinjiang – which literally translates as New Frontier – has always been a contentious region for Beijing since it was conquered in the 18th century. It briefly enjoyed a period of independence in the first half of the 20th century known as East Turkestan. There are a total of 14 minorities in the region whose size is the same as western Europe. Mass Han Chinese migration from the 1950s onwards diluted this mix. The region is home to the largest onland oil and gas deposits in China as well as significant mineral reserves. Up until the early 1990s it was home to China’s nuclear testing. It shares borders with Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. All of which means the presence of the Public Security Bureau, the army and the police is unmissable. The repression of the minorities especially the Muslim Uighurs, the original inhabitants of much of this land, has been well documented.
Yining was the site of a massive 1997 Uighur rising that saw thousands protest and a very bloody response from the authorities with many human rights organizations suggesting the number of violent deaths that followed hit four figures. The Uighurs call this city Ghulja and when I arrived on the August 8 before six am they were clearly kowtowing to the increased security presence, wary of the recent bomb near Kashgar that killed 16 Chinese soldiers and the reports of reprisals and riots that followed.
After a long night time bus journey covering some 1,000 m our bus finally hit solid tarmac and came to the outer limits of the city where at 5.45am the first police patrol boarded and gave a very firm look at all ID cards and passports. Before I would get to my hotel three hours later my passport was checked another six times.
There are police/army checkpoints on every other block of the city and in total my passport is checked 17 times that day, my bags scrutinized countless times too, and the pictures on a digital camera are given a quick once over for good measure. Police carry a full complement of fearsome looking tools – knives, guns, rifles, and bats.
Moreover, there’s a public militia, generally Han Chinese led, with citizens wearing red armbands fixed to their sleeves with safety pins with ‘Public Security’ scrawled in yellow Chinese characters on their armbands. Some of these locals even tote tazers. Hey are there ostensibly to check bags of people entering buildings but also to inform authorities of anyone they deem suspicious. Xinjiang, like Tibet, has long been awash with spies and informants. My second nature journalistic tendencies such as reaching for a notebook, snapping a pic, are kept on the down low all day long. The constant security keeps everyone on their toes.
We eat that evening just around the corner from Sidalin Jie, it appearing wonderfully appropriate that the city has named a street after Stalin.
After dinner the long seven year countdown is over; the Olympic opening ceremony is underway. No where is showing it outside in the bright sunshine. It might be 8pm but the sun is still high – Beijing insists on one time zone for a nation that stretches from New Delhi to Vladivostok in longitude.
We decamp to a bar to watch the culmination of the greatest propaganda show on Earth. The symbolism of this four hour power flaunt is occasionally misconstrued. All dressed up in their ethnic costumes individuals from China’s 56 minorities process through the sweaty, smoggy Bird’s Nest stadium with the five star flag over their heads, handing the red and flag drape meekly to six stern looking members of the People’s Liberation Army. Around 20 minutes into the show a dove of peace emerges on the digital scroll in the centre of the stadium. Outside the bar all we can hear are the sounds of sirens.