Violence in Urumqi Hurts Bazaar Business

The Wall Street Journal, 24 May 2014 

The Grand Bazaar in Urumqi has been a tourist draw for a decade—since it opened in a new plaza meant to evoke the historic caravan-trade culture of Central Asia. But stall owners say fewer tourists are showing up to buy colorful headscarves, knives and other trinkets since a recent uptick in violent attacks in the city and elsewhere in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang.

“The biggest issue is that business isn’t as good. A lot of people are concerned about the attacks, and many people are getting hurt,” said Ma Ziding, a 35-year-old pocketknife seller.

A mixture of China’s majority Han Chinese and Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, mainly Muslim ethnic group, trickled into the outdoor plaza Saturday morning to shop or take photos against the backdrop of a massive tower and mosque.

“A lot of customers don’t dare come,” said a 50-year-old Chinese man who gave his last name as Li. Mr. Li, whose shop sells trinkets, scarves and cigarettes, said foot traffic in the indoor bazaar has fallen by at least 90% this year. “There were so many people here last year that you couldn’t even move,” he said. “The government needs to think of a way to fix this.”

A simmering separatist rebellion by some Uighurs against Chinese rule has flared into occasional violence over the decades. In the past year, violent attacks have picked up and, unlike in the past, begun targeting civilians.

In late April a knife and bomb attack at Urumqi’s main railway station killed three and injured 79. Then, on Thursday, men drove cars into a street-side market and detonated explosives, leaving 43 dead and wounding 94. The dead included four of the attackers; police arrested a suspected fifth attacker in another part of Xinjiang, state media reported early Saturday.

The tourists in the bazaar brushed off the violence. “It’s fine. The situation isn’t that serious,” said a Han Chinese man, a 53-year-old teacher who also gave his last name as Li. Mr. Li said he arrived in Urumqi on Friday night from Beijing to tour the region with his younger brother. He said he knew about the Thursday’s attack but chose not to cancel his trip.

Security around the bazaar was noticeable, though lighter than on Friday, when hundreds of Uighurs gathered in the plaza for their weekly prayer. An armored police vehicle remained parked outside an entrance and bag checks were enforced. An outlet of the French hypermarket Carrefour, located underground beneath the bazaar, installed a bag-screening machine at its entrances on Wednesday, according to an employee.

Outside the entrance to a clothing market were pasted notices torn out of a newspaper containing a speech—in both Chinese and Uighur—denouncing the attack by the head of the Xinjiang regional government.

Tourism has become an important part of the Xinjiang economy, allowing the development of smaller businesses. The region’s oil, gas and mineral resources, as well as its agriculture, are dominated by big, mostly state-owned entities.

One seller of cigarettes, scarves and other souvenirs, who gave his surname as Song, said the number of customers at his shop had halved since last year. He suggested the government support small-business owners by introducing policies to offset the decline in customers.

Not everyone at the bazaar was convinced the recent attacks are the reason for the sharp decline in visitors. Ma Linyu, who sells medicinal herbs and is a member of another predominantly Muslim ethnic group, the Hui, blamed instability in China and the rest of the world. She said the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and China’s conflict with Vietnam and others in the South China Sea are contributing to an overall slump of vacationers in China.

“The entire country is like this; it’s not just Xinjiang,” she said. Although there was a noticeable drop in traffic for a few days after this month’s train-station blast, she said traffic has consistently been lower since the second half of last year.

Still, Ms. Ma praised the police presence outside the bazaar. “The police standing outside is a good thing. They protect us. If they weren’t there, we would be in a worse situation.”

—Wayne Ma and Olivia Geng