Like a frightened flock of sheep,
the people’s erratic dreams
dividing unbroken Heavenly Mountains:
A borderland Great Wall, a natural Wailing Wall
Those unrecognized souls
are the mud and night of other souls
Only the cries of dreams, the tears on faces,
like an expression of the heart,
need no translation.
— Shen Wei, an excerpt from “Ürümchi: An Abandoned Bed” (my translation) in the poetry collection Requiem
I first heard about the poem “Ürümchi: An Abandoned Bed” from a now-disappeared poet, Perhat Tursun, in 2015. We were sitting in his apartment high above Consul Street in Ürümchi, smoking cigarettes and chatting in Uyghur. He told me that the poem’s author, Shen Wei, was one of the only Han intellectuals he truly respected. He said, “He was the only one who actually acknowledged what really happened during Qi Wu.”
Like most Uyghurs, Perhat code-switched when it came to talking about the period of time that surrounded July 5, 2009. It was always just Qī Wǔ (七五) — the Chinese words for 7/5. Continuing, Perhat said, “Shen Wei wrote a poem that compared the South Gate of Ürümchi to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. He was saying that the boundary between Han and Uyghur is just as deep as the boundary between Israelis and Palestinians.” The South Gate in Ürümchi that Perhat and Shen Wei were referring to marks the old Qing Dynasty wall that divided the Han and Uyghur sections of the city, and in a more metaphorical sense, the northern part of the region (Ch: Beijiang) and the Uyghur homeland in southern Xinjiang (Ch: Nanjiang). Perhat told me that this is where the bloodiest fighting took place.
A couple weeks later, I brought up Shen Wei’s poetry with one of my closest Han friends, a well-regarded figure in the Ürümchi art scene, who I will refer to as Chen Ye. He told me, “I really like Shen Wei. He’s not a Xinjiang person, he is from Zhejiang, I think, but he really loves Xinjiang. He wrote a poem about 7/5 that I thought was really good. He said that we are living in a time of death.” Chen Ye was referring to another poem called “Survivor” in Shen Wei’s Requiem collection. The lines go (my translation):
— Xinjiang time, stuck on this summer
A wounded city, stranded on July 5
If we seem to be grieving
It’s because we have just experienced hell
And we don’t care if you call us the living dead.
For Shen Wei and every other person who has lived in the region, “Xinjiang Time” refers to the way Xinjiang people set their clocks two hours behind Beijing standard time. On July 5, that time, and the identities it represents, was shattered. Today, “Xinjiang Time” itself has come to be associated with “ethnic separatism.” This poem resonated with Chen Ye because he felt like time itself began to die inside everyone in Xinjiang on July 5, 2009.
“Maybe no other incident since 1949 changed the course of Xinjiang history and the fate of Uyghur people like 7/5.”
Most people who know anything about Xinjiang know that on July 5, 2009, a student protest turned into a bloody conflict with Uyghurs attacking Han civilians, killing more than 130 with clubs, cleavers, and Shandong paving bricks. Some have even heard that on July 7, crowds of Han counter-protesters armed with wooden clubs took to the streets hunting Uyghurs. In his poem titled “July 7,” Shen Wei describes them as “warriors from the Stone Age.” Fewer have heard that the police opened fire on Uyghurs on the evening of July 5, that they supported the Han retribution in the streets and escalated a process of “disappearing” Uyghur suspects. Even fewer have heard the stories of those who experienced these events hiding in their apartments, terrified.
This event is often evoked as a key moment that precipitated the current mass internment of Turkic Muslims across the region. Yet, as Australian historian Patrick Wolfe has noted, colonization is a process not an event. It produces a structure of feeling that pervades all aspects of life. Events like 7/5 are threshold moments in those larger processes. July 5 was a moment when many people in the region, both colonizers and colonized, began to think about an exit strategy. They began to question their futures in profound ways.
It is now 10 years since the day when the deaths by beating, stabbing, and automatic gunfire reached this new threshold. Many lives were lost over those first few days, but living with death has continued into the present. In what follows, I want to take a few moments to reflect with three of my closest Uyghur, Han, and Kazakh friends who were there on that day. Rather than simply convey the facts of what happened, I asked them to think through their experiences and the feelings of social death that followed. These accounts are not meant to be representative of the perspectives of the different groups involved; in fact, Chen Ye’s telling of the story is highly unusual in its empathetic assessment of what happened. Many of the Han people with whom I’ve discussed this were not able to empathize with the Uyghur position in the same way. In order to protect the identities of each of these individuals, I’ve given them pseudonyms and omitted identifying details. I’ve quoted them at length to allow them to narrate how 7/5 affected them.
For a middle-aged Uyghur school teacher I’ll call Mahmud, the story of 7/5 began with the videos of Uyghur factory workers being beaten. He said:
My fiancé and I were quite upset when we heard about the beatings and killings of Uyghur workers in a Guangdong toy factory. The videos were circulating widely and they were horrific. I clearly remember one scene in which a mob of Han workers cornered one Uyghur guy. Somehow he was able to get out of the crowd that encircled him and ran. But the mob came after him, caught him, and started beating him, as if he was a rat. There was absolutely no mercy or compunction about beating a human being.
We saw the videos and were very indignant about the whole episode. Ilham Tohti wrote a powerful piece asking the government to punish those responsible and protect those Uyghurs who were forced by the government to work in factories on the East Coast. The incident happened on June 26th and for more than a week there was absolutely no official response. Many Uyghur webmasters turned their websites dark to mourn for the dead (this was a practice popularized after the massive earthquake in Sichuan Province a year before).
On that day, my fiancé and I met for lunch, and her friends in inner China texted her about whether we were going to the People’s Square to join the protests. She wrote back, “No, we are not going. We don’t think anyone will go.” I had heard about some calls for protests, but thought that all Uyghurs knew how the government would crack down on any protest by Uyghurs and nobody would dare to hold a demonstration. After lunch, I was meeting with my best friend, to discuss a new flyer for the summer courses we were offering. As we were editing the content of the flyer, we noticed a sudden increase in the number of people passing the streets in both directions. Some people were going south to the Dongkowruk (the Grand Bazaar) to join the protesters, and others were running north, away from the protesters. It was probably around 5 pm. At that moment, we thought that it was probably not a good idea to stay out too long, so we decided to stop working on the flyer and go home. As I was going home, we noticed frenzied movements on the streets. People were walking and running in both directions.
As soon as I got home, my mom said that the window of the bus she was on was smashed and that she walked all the way home from there — quite a long distance, at least four kilometers. She said she basically ran the whole time and that it was very chaotic. She also said that she was shopping at a mall near the People’s Square earlier that afternoon and that there were a lot of young people and police there. We began to sense the gravity of the situation then. At around 7 pm, I received a phone call from my college friend who worked in the state security agency. He asked in a frantic voice, “Where are you?” I said, “Are you joking? You are calling me on a landline.” He then realized that I was home and felt somewhat relieved. “Don’t go anywhere. No matter what, stay home.” He hung up the phone.
“I heard the stutter of automatic weapons. At first, I could not believe that they were guns. But what I saw the next day proved that my suspicion was right. They were real guns.”
I was on the phone with different friends for an hour or so and getting updates on the situation from different quarters of the city. A friend reported that a large group of students had just passed by his housing district. He said, “Wow, these people are so naive.” One guy said, “We are going to gain liberation today! We are going to gain liberation today!” Then we suddenly lost all phone connection and text messaging stopped working. At first we did not know what was happening because our phones had never stopped unless we ran out of money. Around 10 or 11 pm, I heard the stutter of automatic weapons. At first, I could not believe that they were guns. But what I saw the next day proved that my suspicion was right. They were real guns.
The next morning, I got up very early, by 5:30 at the latest. I clearly remember that morning because I rode around the entire south part of the city on my bike. Not many people have bikes in Ürümchi. But that morning, it proved so helpful because there were no buses or taxis. The streets were empty except for emergency vehicles and police cars. I saw everything that morning. So many stores were smashed and burned. There was a vehicle overturned and burned in front of Xinjiang University. As I passed through a Geely car dealership, I saw dozens of cars burned. There were at least 10 buses that were smashed and burned. Street cleaning cars were busily cleaning the streets of any blood and other carnage from the previous night, but the bloodstains and half-burned bodies were still on the sidewalks. Many people were already outside their housing districts and everyone seemed to be in a state of disbelief. It was far more serious than we had ever imagined. It is still a mystery to us how things got out of control so quickly. We realized that life would not continue as before.
On the evening of July 6, we began to hear that there were some Han protestors marching in the streets. The next day we heard many stories of Han people marching and beating and killing any Uyghurs in sight. We also heard many Uyghur-owned businesses — restaurants, bakeries, shops — in the northern part of the city were destroyed by Han protestors. A friend witnessed a huge number of Han people marching on the street and the army protecting them and doing nothing when Uyghurs were beaten. After that we realized that Urumqi was no longer safe for Uyghurs, and my mom and I bought bus tickets to Hotan at a very high price — twice the usual price — and left the city.
When I spoke with Chen Ye, the Han artist, about 7/5 in 2015, he said he had been in a Uyghur neighborhood working on a documentary project when the violence started:
I was on one of the last buses going north. The rest (of the buses) were all taken over. Many people were killed. The highest number of people killed might be 7,000, but most (local Xinjiang Han) people like me think it was more like three or four thousand. The government just says it was a little less than 200. Most of the people who were killed were just shot by the police. It wasn’t often even clear if they were part of (the protests) or not. The deaths that were reported (by the government) were mainly people killed by cars or in buses that were set on fire. At first it was just some peaceful marchers going to the square to ask the leaders to do something about what had happened in Guangdong, but then it quickly turned violent. People started beating and stabbing and killing. 7/5 had nothing to do with Rebiya (the former leader of the World Uyghur Congress). She was just a business person. It had nothing to do with her.
After 7/5, many Han people cursed Uyghurs. It is becoming very hard for them to see things from the other’s perspective. Now we are all scared of each other.
Most of the (Uyghur) “common people” (Ch: laobaixing) had nothing to do with this either. Maybe some of them took part in 7/5, but the majority of those people had nothing to do with it. Most Uyghurs were just (in the city) looking for work. They just wanted to feed their families. They don’t even have household registration here, so if they get caught in some sort of illegal activity they would lose everything. Of course they had very little to do with it.
Here in my neighborhood (in the Han part of the city) on the days following 7/5, hundreds of Han people smashed Uyghur restaurants. The local police came carrying their guns. But when they saw that it was Han people doing it they just went back to their stations. It was really easy for “our” police to grab any Uyghur they saw and accuse them of doing something. There was a rumor about how the Uyghur extremists would pay poor Uyghur guys thousands of yuan to kill a Han. But in 2014, what we saw in Khotan was exactly the opposite. The government pays local Uyghurs or Han thousands to catch a Uyghur or shoot a Uyghur without any real knowledge of whether or not he deserves to be shot. It is exactly the same thing, except this way is supported by the state and so we think it is justified. After 7/5, many Han people cursed Uyghurs. It is becoming very hard for them to see things from the other’s perspective. Now we are all scared of each other.
A young Kazakh school teacher, who I will call Gulnar, told me:
I was in my dorm at Xinjiang University on that day. My cousin called and warned me not to go out, because she was in the great bazaar area and saw the conflict. I told her to walk back to a relative’s place (near the center of town) immediately. I stayed in the dorm. That night the power went out. I kept checking the news online, around midnight the internet was down. When I went out to look around, people in the campus had gathered and talked to each other anxiously. That night I heard the loud sounds of young people protesting till really late. The next day, the students on the campus panicked and bought all the food in the grocers. The shelves were empty. I also heard many students at Xinjiang University were arrested for participating. There were kiosks at the gate to check some students’ IDs.
After a few days I returned home by taxi. The Han taxi driver was recovering from fear but also full of hatred toward non-Han people. Because I hadn’t seen anything, I was critical of his attitude. He didn’t tolerate this but harshly lectured me on the cruelty of Uyghurs killing civilians, even pregnant women. He said Uyghurs should all be arrested immediately. I had to keep quiet because he was intimidating. The shops and restaurants along the bus route were mostly burned and destroyed. It was like a war zone. Trucks after trucks of soldiers were entering Urumqi on the main roads emptied out for them. That was my first time seeing such a thing. Later, tanks and PLA trucks became such an ordinary everyday scene that we became used to them.
I realized I could no longer live there anymore. I absolutely felt the power of the totalitarian Chinese state and was afraid this would last for my lifetime.
After 7/5, everyone talked about it whenever they had a chance, at the restaurants, family or friend gatherings to exchange bits and pieces of information from their perspectives: deaths, injuries, disappearances, why this happened, what the police did, what the government didn’t do, what would happen next. I heard some Kazakh students were missing, some were even Kazakhstani students. Taxi drivers wouldn’t take non-Han customers. My cousin told me a bit of what she saw.
Official TV channels quickly started to report on the destruction and horrendous deeds of the mobs, and framed 7/5 as a “riot” (Ch: baoluan), using the same kind of language that they use for the Tiananmen incident on June 4, 1989. Several universities distributed pamphlets titled “Fifty Whys” to standardize the official narrative of this incident. They said things like, “It is not a ‘ethnic’ issue, it’s due to terrorism and the infiltration of foreign forces. It was a small bunch of terrorist and separatists.” Teachers were tasked with teaching students what to believe in, but first they had to profess their thinking to their supervisors and colleagues. My supervisor at Xinjiang University told me not to make friends with foreigners, because the police showed her a picture of me with some American friends at a bar. I was really shocked that this could be a problem and I was being watched by the Big Brother like that. This teacher-spying-and-brainwashing-students practice is used today as well. After 7/5, the government focused on telling people to forget and move on. But 7/5 was like having a bad injury followed by psychological trauma: one cannot simply heal by being told to do so.
Gulnar said that over the months that followed, things began to change:
A few months after 7/5, the street buildings and schools were covered in countless red banners, slogans, and big-character posters about “ethnic solidarity,” “stability is everything,” and “crack down on terrorism.” I remember being shocked to see such a striking resemblance to the Cultural Revolution I had read about from books and articles. I knew how terrifying the Cultural Revolution had been and now it seemed like it was coming back.
Uyghur and Kazakh people who lived in the northern part of the city were nervous that the Han would retaliate against them. We heard rumors that Han had killed some non-Han people, and some Uyghur and Kazakh civilians began to walk with clubs in their hands for self-protection. All institutions and neighborhoods had their own security teams with armbands and clubs. This was when security checkpoints became ordinary as well. There was no internet; later, we had a local network and could access local news websites. I tried to find any outside information I could. Phoenix Weekly magazine from Hong Kong was available at the bookstands, and they didn’t repeat the official propaganda, but addressed issues such as Uyghur struggles and poverty. I felt very conflicted and baffled all the time, some Kazakh people in my circle even turned against Uyghurs and blamed them as troublemakers.
Mahmud said that in the months that followed, he began to feel that blame for the incident was being assigned to Uyghurs in general:
After 7/5, the government carried out a campaign of mass arrests and thorough rearrangement of the way they approached social management in and throughout the region. What I remember the most about that period is the massive ideological campaign we were subjected to. We were used to political study sessions, but the intensity of the political meetings was nothing that I had seen before. That was when I lost all hope that there would be any future for me in that place and decided to take active steps to leave the country.
Chen Ye told me that 7/5 and the blaming of Uyghurs intensified the process of urban cleansing, eliminating Uyghurs from mainstream Chinese life. He said:
There are two major changes that have happened since the events of July 5, 2009. First, on the surface, things have been radically altered. Old-style one-story (Ch: pingfang) houses have been torn down and replaced with new apartments…infrastructure has been improved, but the lives of Uyghurs most directly affected by the redevelopment have not been improved that much. Instead, they have just found themselves dispersed into other parts of the city or forced to leave. Second, household registration (Ch: hukou) restrictions have been drastically increased. Uyghur migrants are being simultaneously pushed and squeezed. When they came to find work, many of (the migrants) first built their own houses without official permission, so this is the reason officials give for tearing down their houses. I really don’t agree with this, because behind this is an attitude that Uyghurs “have no culture” (Ch: mei wenhua).
People talk as though society should be controlled through competition. People with the ability to do well should be free to live in the city and those that cannot should be pushed out. Of course, since Uyghurs are discriminated against and can’t move freely and speak easily in the Chinese world, this means they will be the first to be eliminated. Actually, if you follow this logic, all of Xinjiang should be eliminated, since in the eyes of most Chinese, it itself is so far “behind” (Ch: luohou). I really disagree with this perspective. It lacks vision into the complexity of the problems we face here. Pushing problems to the side does not solve them. Everyone tries to blame their problems on others without considering their own role in making them.
From Mahmud’s perspective, the violence we see today in Xinjiang is directly connected to the events of 2009. He said:
The events of July 2009 set in motion a vicious cycle of violence in the region. The government arrested thousands of people. The prisons in Ürümchi were so overflowed with detained Uyghurs that they sent thousands of Uyghurs to other prisons in southern Xinjiang. Some schools were temporarily converted into detention facilities. So many people were unjustly detained and sentenced to long prison terms. Their family and friends were strictly surveilled and harassed by local officials, which caused further deterioration of the situation and many other violent incidents in the region. To a large extent, the current crisis can be traced directly back to the events of July 5. Maybe no other incident since 1949 changed the course of Xinjiang history and the fate of Uyghur people like 7/5.
Gulnar echoed Mahmud’s thoughts:
The government’s reaction of closing down all channels of truth and communication made a big impact on me. I realized I could no longer live there anymore. I absolutely felt the power of the totalitarian Chinese state and was afraid this would last for my lifetime. In the following years, when I worked at a university in Ürümchi, every summer there was an ideological battle against “terrorism and foreign infiltration.” Teachers were tasked with molding students’ thinking, and they themselves were also required to participate in political conformity performances. We were told by our supervisors to urge female Uyghur students not to wear head covers. We also had to sing “red songs” and read political study articles in a group every Wednesday afternoon. My Han colleagues had a very condescending attitude and teaching methodology toward Uyghur and Kazakh students, as if they were children who must be managed and disciplined in a special way. I never followed these orders because they were absolutely unbearable and ridiculous. I never told female students not to wear head coverings. I walked out during the “red song” singing rituals. The supervisors saw me as a “problematic teacher.” If I were still there today, I would have definitely been taken to “study” (in the internment camps). I liked teaching and my students there, but the climate of Xinjiang pushed me to leave.
Luckily, I never experienced 7/5 violence directly, but I think it continues to affect me in very imperceptible ways: paranoia, anxiety, insecurity, and self-censorship. 7/5 was not only a turning point in ethnic relations and the state’s tightened control and surveillance in Xinjiang, but also a turning point in my life. I no longer felt safe in my home city, no longer felt I could be treated as having equal rights. It was a wake-up call (for me) to realize that something was deeply wrong. I realized then that the situation in Xinjiang could only get worse and worse if the government kept burying the truth. Every year on July 5, the security and checkpoints would double up in Urumqi. That’s how the 7/5 anniversary in Xinjiang was “celebrated.” We joked that it made us feel oh so extra safe, but deep down in my heart I felt desolate.
Shen Wei’s poetry collection ends with a poem titled “Requiem,” which is dedicated to the victims of July 5, 2009. It is framed by a repeated open question: “What will it take to comfort the undead?” Today, 10 years later, this question remains unanswered in Northwest China.
This essay first appeared in the journal SupChina on July 3, 2019.