At home with the Uyghurs

Saturday, July 11, 2009 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

The air smells of dust, grapes and leather, and blinding sunlight bounces off blue doorways, courtyard walls, the dirt road and our scooter-pulled taxi as Zulmira shows me her neighbourhood.

Approaching her grandmother’s house, she identifies everyone’s ethnicity without hesitation: “That’s a Uyghur house. … That’s Han. Uyghur. Uyghur. Uyghur. Han.”

The 22-year-old student is home in Yining, a bustling city on China’s Kazakh border, for a week-long holiday. She studies English at Xinjiang Normal University (“Xinjiang Abnormal,” she clarifies, rolling her eyes) in Urumqi, the provincial capital, and has been kind, or misguided, enough to act as tour guide for a foreigner visiting from Shanghai.

It’s early last October, two months after the Beijing Olympics were disrupted by deadly attacks in the ancient oasis cities of Xinjiang (and eight months before Uyghur and Han residents would take to the streets of Urumqi in riots that have left more than 150 people dead).

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In China, out-of-work migrants destabilizing

Friday, January 23, 2009 – San Francisco Chronicle

Anna Mehler Paperny

SHANGHAI

On a recent Sunday morning, the scene on the K290 train heading west from Shanghai to China’s rural heartland was one of chaos.

The hard-seat cars teemed with passengers, many of them migrant workers fighting to place their baggage in overhead compartments or find space to sit in the aisles.

Chun yun, or spring festival transport, is the world’s largest human migration, involving hundreds of millions of people annually traveling home before the Lunar New Year. But this year, migrants returning home before the Year of the Ox begins Monday got an early start after hundreds of thousands of workers lost their city jobs.

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China’s wild west

Urumqi, China
Photo by Anna Mehler Paperny

Anna Mehler Paperny

Maclean’s Magazine – December 4, 2008

URUMQI, CHINA

China’s Xinjiang region, in the deserts and mountains of the country’s far northwest, could be two parallel universes. One is on the receiving end of a flood of foreign investment, home to swiftly multiplying oil derricks and gleaming office towers. This is the image the Chinese government wants to spring to mind when foreigners think of Xinjiang, the “wild west” whose economy Beijing is trying to bring level with the more prosperous areas of the country. The other, home to about eight million Uighurs, functions in a different language and boasts wholly foreign religion, culture and food. To a visitor it’s like another country entirely. And that’s what has Beijing worried.

In August, the region was rocked by violent attacks in the west that killed at least 33 people. The unrest, which the Chinese government has blamed on Uighur separatist groups, humiliated the government and shook China’s ostensibly shatterproof national security leading up to the Beijing Olympics. In Xinjiang, the aftermath is still palpable. It’s translated into heightened security measures—omnipresent guards and checkpoints, among other things—and tightened restrictions on religious practice for the Muslim Uighurs, one of China’s 50-plus ethnic minorities that are separated from the Han majority by language and a deep-seated, mutual distrust.

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