HONG KONG—A year after deadly ethnic violence rocked the city of Urumqi, authorities in China's troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have begun demolishing a part of the city that traditionally housed hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs.
Official media reports billed the demolition work as the clearance of "slum shantytowns" in Urumqi's Heijiashan district, which they described as "a hotbed of poverty and crime."
The district was hard-hit by deadly riots last July that left at least 197 people dead according to official estimates. Resident say security remains tight throughout the region.
Heijiashan is home to around 200,000 Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking and mostly Muslim people, many of whom are from the south of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
"Due to the poor management of the area, the migrants were easily incited by rioters," the official English-language China Daily newspaper quoted a local official as saying.
Throughout Urumqi, meanwhile, authorities have stepped up security, residents say.
“[Police] vehicles are patrolling every street in Urumqi,” a woman surnamed Zhang said.
“Security personnel have been checking bags on buses. Cars are also often stopped and checked. It’s serious.”
A man surnamed Fang, who lives near Urumqi’s largest market, the Grand Bazaar, gave a similar account.
“Police cruisers are everywhere lately, possibly looking for suspicious vehicles,” he said, adding that Urumqi now has 8,370 police cameras throughout the city and that each utility pole has been assigned a unique number.
“If something happens, you can call the police and tell them the nearest utility pole number, then the police control center will record everything within 50 meters of the pole,” he said.
“The Heijiashan area is like a huge labyrinth, where all small lanes are connected with each other,” a resident surnamed Huang said. “There are three new police stations there.”
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based exile group the World Uyghur Congress, said the Chinese government is clearing away a Uyghur neighborhood of the city in the name of urban regeneration.
"They think that having all the Uyghurs living in the same place together constitutes a threat, especially those Uyghurs who come from out of town, from southern Xinjiang, who are usually merchants renting accommodation," Raxit said.
"These cheap dwelling places are being demolished by the authorities because they are supposedly illegal structures," he added.
"The real aims are firstly to take away a place where Uyghurs can go, and secondly to prevent large numbers of Uyghurs from congregating in a single place."
“The Urumqi Police bomb squad entered the Heijiashan area [Monday], mainly targeting Uyghur residents. Heijiashan is full of Uyghurs from Ili, Kashgar, Hetian, plus local Uyghurs,” Raxit said.
He warned that the government's policies are likely to prompt further unrest in a region where anti-Beijing feelings already run high, and where many chafe under Chinese rule.
"It's very hard to describe the situation in the region in words. But the government's policies will spark an even greater backlash," Raxit said.
Few benefits from boom
U.S.-based dissident and political scientist Wang Juntao cited a widespread belief among Chinese leaders that last year's unrest erupted because Uyghurs haven't enjoyed enough of the benefits from China's economic boom over the last three decades.
Wang said many Han Chinese officials see the demolitions as an opportunity to move the Uyghurs into better housing.
"The government's method is to use development as a way of dissolving old conflicts," Wang said.
"But looking at it from the point of view of the Uyghurs ... this development shouldn't destroy the culture or the traditional ways of living together of the people indigenous to the region."
He added that any evidence of official profiteering from the redevelopment project could further alienate Uyghurs from the Han Chinese residents of Xinjiang.
"If there is too much corruption in the handling of the funds for the project, for example if the funds allocated by the central government aren't properly used, then this could lead to even greater protest among the Uyghurs," Wang said.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called for the demolition of the neighborhood during a visit to the region in the wake of the July 5 unrest, which Beijing has blamed on incitement by exiled Uyghur dissident Rebiya Kadeer.
The World Uyghur Congress, headed by Kadeer, has accused the Chinese police of firing on unarmed Uyghur demonstrators who sought an investigation into the deaths of Uyghur migrant workers at a factory in the southern city of Shaoguan.
The municipal government has earmarked 300 billion yuan (U.S. $44.1 billion) for the work of demolition and relocation over five years.
Officials have promised that evictees will be compensated with new houses of the same floor area, or with money to buy an equivalent apartment.
However, similar government relocation programs elsewhere in China have sparked complaints that the new housing is far outside the city without the amenities or the property prices of the downtown area.
In Urumqi, the owners of "unlicensed" houses would only be allocated a floor area of 70 percent of their former floor area, official media reported.
Similar demolition programs have already razed the heart of the Silk Road city of Kashgar, sparking accusations that Beijing is bent on destroying Uyghur heritage.
Many Uyghurs feel closer to the Central Asian cultures of the Silk Road than to Beijing, and many have braved official harassment, detention, and jail sentences to advocate independence from Chinese rule.
Uyghurs enjoyed two brief periods of independence as the state of East Turkestan during the 1940s, before the Chinese Communist Party consolidated control over the vast, resource-rich region.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Tang Qiwei and Qiao Long. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated from the Chinese by Chen Ping and Luisetta Mudie, and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.