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Urumqi: From riots to a beauty contest

 URUMQI, China – Riot-torn Urumqi is hosting a beauty contest. The streets are still swamped by riot police, the city tense and littered with the debris of the worst unrest in decades, but the contestants for the 35th Miss International Beauty Pageant have come to town.

I bumped into them at dinner on Friday. In all honesty, you couldn't miss them, since very few other people were staying at my hotel, which is a few minutes away from where nearly 200 people died just a week ago. 

They paraded along the buffet line as if already on the catwalk. I picked my way along with contestants from Turkmenistan and Vietnam dressed in their finest and minimalist evening wear.

Image: Remains of a Han Chinese car dealership after ethnic riots in Urumqi, China.
Ian Williams / NBC News
The remains a Han Chinese car dealership after ethnic riots in Urumqi, China.

The "Stans" – the former Soviet Republics – were well represented, and there were women also representing Siberia and numerous Chinese cities and regions. Prominent among the latter was a Miss Xinjiang China. One of the tallest in the contest, she wore the shortest skirt, and looked nothing like the embattled and angry Uighur woman who'd been confronting the riot police.

I asked contestants from France and Germany what it was like to be in a beauty contest in a riot-torn city.

They didn't appear to know Urumqi is a riot-torn city.

The finals are later this month, and I guess they are not likely to be quizzed too deeply on local affairs. In the meantime, according to a poster in the lobby, they will be highlighting the "beauty of Xinjiang."

Not beautiful right now

This troubled me, since the situation in Xinjiang is not very beautiful right now, and the idea of pressing ahead with a beauty contest in Muslim Xinjiang, in the aftermath of so much violence, seems almost surreal.

It reminded me of my last visit to Xinjiang, shortly before the Beijing Olympic Games last August.

In the main square of Khotan, a town on the southern Silk Road, local Han Chinese leaders had launched an Olympic lottery. There was also a stage show, in which Uighur performers sang in Chinese. It was all very crass, and very loud. It was also a Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, and the authorities had banned mosques from using loud-speakers to broadcast their call to prayer.

It doesn't get much more culturally insensitive. But, of course, that's not the way China sees it.

The Chinese government believes it has brought economic progress and prosperity to the region. They see the Uighurs as an ungrateful lot, the rioters manipulated by criminals and separatist terrorists overseas.

And there seems to be no sign that this almost colonial attitude is going to change.

Image: Riot police on the streets of Urumqi last week.
Ian Williams / NBC News
Riot police on the streets of Urumqi last week.

Open to journalists, but still murky

But unlike when Tibet blew up last year, at least we journalists were able to report, and were given pretty much free access to the worst affected areas.

"What do you think of the openness?" I was asked by a reporter from CCTV, China's state television, late last week, his camera rolling. I muttered something about all openness being good, since rumor and speculation aren't good for anybody.

It was an off-the-cuff remark, but when I thought about it afterwards, quite an accurate one. Last year the Chinese government would not allow foreign journalists into Tibet, so reporters relied heavily on bits and pieces of video and information that slipped out, often via exile or activist groups abroad, little of which could be accurately verified.

This time, the authorities were quick to cut the Internet, instant messaging and international phone lines, but within Urumqi we were pretty much allowed to do as we pleased.

Still, it was hard to get an accurate picture of the dynamics of the violence. The Uighurs were often nervous about speaking openly. We do know that it was nasty and messy and involved brutality by both sides of the ethnic divide. But a different picture would have emerged if we'd been kept out, and just relied on Uighur exile groups, and the Chinese government understood that.

We may never get an accurate break down of the identity of the almost 200 dead and hundreds of injured (the government said most were Han Chinese; the Uighurs dispute this).

What we do know is that Xinjiang was a tinderbox waiting to explode, and when the explosion came, Han Chinese and their businesses were targeted before the security forces hit back hard, as did Han Chinese vigilantes.

So the authorities were more open, but it was a clever strategy.

The only fast-ish Internet connections were in a government-run press center, inside a government-run hotel. The center also organized tours of hospitals and the worst affected areas. Two floors below, in the lobby coffee shop, a large video screen showed Michael Jackson videos non-stop. Perhaps they thought this would appeal to the foreign press (though most journalists there were only too pleased to get away from the Jackson story).

The beauty contestants might have enjoyed it, though they – and the NBC team – were staying in a different hotel.

Image: Remains of a Uighur restaurant owned by a Han Chinese businessman.
Ian Williams / NBC News
The damaged remains of a Uighur restaurant that is actually owned by a Han Chinese businessman.

Deep differences

The city of Urumqi is overwhelmingly Han Chinese these days, after years of heavy government-encouraged migration. The 9 million Uighurs now make up less than half the population of Xinjiang, their home region. And the economy is growing fast – it's a vital supplier of natural resources to the rest of China.

The Uighurs, often poorly education and with a poor command of Mandarin, complain they are being left out of this boom. And this discrimination is often a more bitter complaint than the restrictions on religion, which also run deep.

A short distance from my hotel was the wreckage of a Uighur restaurant – windows and furniture smashed, cooking equipment upended by a Han Chinese mob, seeking revenge. It was a mess.

As we looked around, a young waiter emerged from a back room. He told me the Uighur family who owned the place had sold out – to a Han Chinese businessman – just a month before the riot. So apparently, the rioters made a mistake.