Lu Huakun, 25, was killed this week by Uighur rioters. His mother found him in the street, “his head covered with blood, his left arm nearly severed into three pieces.”
July 9, 2009
Migrants Describe Grief From China’s Strife
By EDWARD WONG
URUMQI, China—As young Uighurs rampaged through the streets of this western regional capital on Sunday, Zhang Aiying rushed home and stashed her fruit cart away, safe from the mob. But there was no sign of her son, who had ventured back into the chaos to retrieve another of the family’s carts.
“Call him on his cellphone,” Ms. Zhang, 46, recalled shouting to a cousin. “Tell him we want him home. We don’t need him to go back.”
Her son, Lu Huakun, did not answer the call. Three hours later, after the screaming had died down, Ms. Zhang went out into the street. A dozen bodies were strewn about. She found her son, his head covered with blood, his left arm nearly severed into three pieces.
The killing of Mr. Lu, 25, was a ruinous end to the journey of a family that had fled their poor farming village in central China more than a decade ago to forge a new life here in China’s remote desert region.
Mr. Lu and his parents are typical of the many Han migrants who, at the encouragement of the Chinese government, have settled among the Muslim Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking race that is the largest ethnic group in oil-rich region of Xinjiang. The influx of Han, the dominant ethnic group in China, has transformed Xinjiang: the percentage of Han in the population was 40 percent in 2000, up from 6 percent in 1949.
“We wanted to do business,” Lu Sifeng, 47, the father, said Tuesday, his eyes glistening with tears as he sat smoking on his bed. “There was a calling by the government to develop the west. This place would be nothing without the Han.”
But migration has fueled ethnic tensions, as Uighurs complain about the loss of jobs, the proliferation of Han-owned businesses and the disintegration of their own culture.
On Sunday, Mr. Lu was among at least 156 people killed in the deadliest ethnic violence in China in decades. Raging Uighurs battled security forces and attacked Han civilians across Urumqi.
The riot had evolved from a protest march held by more than 1,000 Uighurs to demand that the government investigate an earlier brawl between Han and Uighurs in southern China.
The government, apparently hoping to tamp down racial violence, has not released a breakdown of the ethnicities of the 156 dead. But Mr. Lu’s father said that of more than 100 photographs of bodies that he looked through at a police station to identify his son, the vast majority were Han Chinese, most with their heads cut or smashed.
Each victim had a number. His son was 51.
“Of course, in recent days, we’ve been angry toward the Uighur,” Mr. Lu said. “And of course we’re scared of them.”
The family came from Zhoukou, in Henan Province, a poor part of central China. They grew wheat, corn and soybeans on a tiny plot of land. There was little money in it, and the parents heard of a way out: friends from Henan had gone to distant Xinjiang and were making enough money to support relatives back home.
It was the late 1990s, and the central government had announced a push to develop the west, promising that investment would soon flow to those long-neglected lands.
Mr. Lu and Ms. Zhang went first. The younger Mr. Lu followed after graduating from junior high school.
Others from Henan were selling fruit and vegetables, so the Lu family bought wooden fruit carts. They got a spot at an open-air market off Dawan North Road, on the border between Han and Uighur neighborhoods. Every day, they pushed their carts to work at 8 a.m. and did not shut down until midnight. In a good month, the family earned $300.
“He wasn’t so satisfied with life here,” Ms. Zhang said of her son. “He was so tired here, and there wasn’t so much money.”
Not a day went by that they did not miss their hometown, Ms. Zhang said. But until this past winter, they had never returned for a visit. They wanted to save the cost of train tickets.
They live in bare concrete rooms on the ground floor of an apartment block opposite the market. The kitchen has a makeshift two-burner stove a few feet from the parents’ bed. Most of their neighbors are fellow settlers from Henan and Sichuan.
At the market, about three-quarters of the 200 vendors are from those two provinces, the parents said. A handful of Uighurs sold fruit or raw mutton.
“Relations with the Uighurs were pretty good,” Ms. Zhang said. “There was a mutton stall beside the cart where my son sold fruit. On nights when my son didn’t want to bring his fruit home, he would ask the Uighur neighbor to keep the fruit inside his stall.”
This past winter, the family took the nearly 40-hour train ride home for the first time. The parents had arranged for Mr. Lu to marry a 23-year-old woman from home. The couple had photographs taken: Mr. Lu in a white turtleneck lying beside his bride-to-be in front of a beach backdrop; the smiling couple sitting on a white bench, each holding teddy bears in their laps.
The family returned to Xinjiang after scheduling the wedding for the end of this year.
On Sunday, as on any other day, Ms. Zhang, her son and a young cousin pushed four carts to the market. Mr. Lu’s father had gone to another province to buy fruit wholesale.
Abruptly at 8 p.m., the manager of the market told people to shut down. Hours earlier, more Uighurs had begun marching through the streets to protest government discrimination. Street battles erupted when riot police officers armed with tear gas and batons tried to disperse the crowd.
The first wave of the rioters arrived minutes later, metal rods and knives in hand. The younger Mr. Lu dashed home first. Ms. Zhang followed. When she got home, she found that he had gone out again to rescue another cart.
She cried for three hours until she dared go out to look for him.
“I thought, if I don’t find a body, then maybe he’s in hiding and still alive,” she said. “But I quickly found the body.”
Security forces arrived at 1 a.m. to collect the bodies. On Wednesday, Mr. Lu’s father identified his son from a photograph at a police station.
“After we cremate the body, we’ll go home with the ashes,” Ms. Zhang said.
The father stared at cigarette butts strewn across the floor. “We’ll never come back,” he said.
Huang Yuanxi contributed research from Beijing.