The Uyghur Who Saved a Han | Xinjiang: Far West China

The Uyghur Who Saved a Han

August 4 | 4 Comments

During the first few days of the Urumqi riots, stories of beatings, killings, brutal knifings and explosions dominated the gossip circles in Xinjiang. So gruesome were these stories that one could only wish that they were fabrications, although sad pictures in the local press confirmed the contrary. Occasionally, however, a story would find its way through the community* that would be a reminder that hatred is the characteristic of individuals, not ethnic groups. Just as every German wasn’t responsible for the Holocaust and not every Japanese committed atrocities in Nanking, not every Uyghur is to blame for the chaos that began on July 5th, 2009. In fact, as this story shows, some of them were given the opportunity to be heroes.

Bahtiar** (pronounced “bak-tee-ar”), a Muslim Uyghur, never would have guessed on that beautiful Sunday afternoon that he would end the day risking his life for a few Han Chinese people he didn’t even know. In fact, he wasn’t expecting to do anything more than serve food at his small Uyghur restaurant. Situated along the main road leading to the International Bazaar, the majority of his clientele were usually tourists – both Han (Chinese) and foreign.

Most people in Urumqi were unaware of the peaceful protests which had been on going since early in the afternoon, but once a group formed in the open area of the Urumqi International Bazaar the violence that ensued caught everybody’s attention. Heading north towards the People’s Square they left a wake of damage to any Chinese establishments with rocks, sticks and an occasional knife. Pent up frustration mixed with a poisonous mob mentality had obviously infected men who had up until this point never participated in violence.

As the group made its way up the main street, gaining momentum with every shattered window, some of the more radical protesters began barging into every restaurant and pulling out any Han Chinese on which to take out their aggression. Considering that the dinner hour was just beginning to come alive many of these restaurants were filled with people trying to enjoy some lamb and noodles.

Bahtiar, seeing what was transpiring, made a snap decision in the heat of the moment, a decision which would prove to be both risky and life-saving. Gathering all of his terrified Han customers who were eating in the restaurant he quickly ushered them to the back of the restaurant and hid them in the kitchen.

Barely a minute later two of the protesters, sticks in hand, burst into the restaurant and demanded to know if any Han Chinese were present. Shaking out of fear while staring his own countrymen in the eye he lied. “No. There are none here.” The whole restaurant paused for what felt like an eternity as the protesters looked for signs that another Uyghur might have deceived them. One might wonder if the plates of food served at empty tables might have been a dead giveaway to these two men, but the riot was moving to rapidly for them to investigate further, so they left.

The story doesn’t end here, however, as the riots carried on late into the night keeping the streets unsafe for all people. Bahtiar’s customers had to be led to safety from a restaurant that was in the heart of Uyghur neighborhood and therefore directly in the hot zone. An idea was suggested which was at first scoffed and then slowly reconsidered. What if each of these Han customers was dressed in Uyghur clothing and made to wear a head cover, a form of traditional fashion that was still widely used by strict observers of the Muslim faith (those least likely to be singled out in this riot), and then snuck out the back of the restaurant? It just might work.

So while outside cars were burning and people were yelling, inside these Han Chinese – male and female alike – were covered from head to toe in traditional outwear that would protect them from the anarchy. Had these escapees been found by the protesters there is no doubt that Bahtiar would have been severely beaten or even worse. In all likelihood he will never be recognized for his heroic risk and probably will never know that his story is being told.

But this story must be taken to heart, especially to those Han Chinese here who right now are scared to death of their Uyghur neighbor. Considering the tensions that have existed for centuries between the Han Chinese and their ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, this recent riot is likely to strain these feelings even further. Regardless the reason or justification for these protests, the deaths of hundreds of people is inexcusable for those few whose hatred overpowered their better judgment. But as Bahtiar and many others show, it is improper and prejudiced to label an entire entire ethnic group by a single characteristic.

*A similar story of kindness during the violence was written up in the Shanghai Daily

**Because this story is being told 2nd hand, all names and exact locations have been changed or made up. Any resemblance to actual persons or places in Urumqi is purely coincidental.

About Josh Summers

Josh is a writer, musician and entrepreneur who currently resides in Urumqi, capital of China's western province of Xinjiang. He has been traveling and writing about this region since 2006 and has no plans to stop in the near future.

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  1. Josh, thanks for this interesting anecdote. I have heard a lot of stories like this one too. To those who haven't seen the riot coverage on Xinjiang TV, a disproportionate percentage of the news aired accounts of inter-ethnic compassion, basically Han and Uyghurs helping each other out during the violence. While it was comforting to see this, I was frustrated that simple human kindness was co-opted by the state media to further their agenda (ethnic harmony, and so on), and to prevent any real investigation of the events that transpired.


  2. Is anyone else having problems accessing Urumqi by telephone I haven't been able to get through all this week (28/8 – 4/9)?


  3. Sakura:
    What are you suggesting?

    Government should stay aside, let people sort out the difference by themselves?

    That will solve the Xingjiang problem very quickly.


  4. Is it better to spam the media with false statements of ethnic brotherhood (which, incidentally, no-one there really believes), and blame bogus external 'cliques' for the violence – or deal with the real underlying causes?

    As someone who has been based in Urumqi since 2005, and was there from July 6th to July 21st, I can say that neither side comes out of this very well. They're both playing fast and loose with the facts to suit their own agendas.


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