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China Torch Relay: Urumqi

June 19, 2008

By Shirong Chen , China editor
June 17, 2008

At about 2,500km (1,560 miles) from the nearest sea, Urumqi, capital
of China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region, is one of the most landlocked
cities in the world.

A Chinese pop song describes Xinjiang as "a wonderful place, with
beautiful scenery north and south of Tianshan mountain".

Urumqi sits on the northern side of the Tianshan range, on the famous
Silk Road that leads to Kazakhstan and seven other Central Asian countries.

The city reflects the area's ethnic mix and life style. It is
Muslim-dominated, but you can see many Han Chinese and other ethnic
minorities here.

Uighurs are the largest ethnic group, making up eight million of the
region's population of 20 million.


In the markets, visitors are greeted with the smell of the famous
lamb barbecue and the beautiful colours of the silk cloth and
carpets. There are large Turpan grapes and sweet Kumul melons.

On the streets, you can see volunteers selling Chinese and Olympic
flags, many of the vendors with a red heart stuck to their cheeks.

"We are university volunteers selling flags to make everyone
patriotic," one of them said to our correspondent James Reynolds.

"We don't charge disabled people for them. We are very proud of the
torch coming here. It's something good that comes along once every
100 years. It shows that China is powerful."

Of course, it is not entirely harmonious here. The Chinese
authorities have announced extra security measures ahead of the torch
relay in Urumqi, including random vehicle checks and a ban on firecrackers.


Spectators have been told not to watch the relay over footbridges or
shout slogans that would "harm the nation or the relay cities" in Xinjiang.

One shopkeeper who runs a stall on the route selling soft drinks and
cigarettes is not very impressed.

She has been told by the local government that she will have to keep
her windows closed and watch the relay on television.

"What's the point of having the relay go past my door if I can't even
see it and have to watch it on TV?" she asks.

This is all because the authorities are worried that Muslim
separatists will target the relay.

Some of the indigenous Uighurs have been accused of belonging to a
separatist group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or Etim,
that has organised violent uprisings and bomb attacks.

Etim has also been accused of having links with al-Qaeda and of
seeking to establish an independent state of East Turkestan in
Xinjiang. This year China claims to have disrupted multiple plots
targeting the Olympic Games.

Xinjiang's regional capital, Urumqi, is a bustling multi-cultural city

Last week, China rolled out its Olympic security set-up by holding
the last major anti-terror exercise in Beijing.

The government also appointed terrorism expert Yang Huanning as the
executive vice minister for public security in anticipation of
Olympic-related threats.

The torch relay in Xinjiang has been moved forward by a week from its
original schedule, in an attempt to wrong foot any attempts at disruption.

The relay will start at 0930 local time and pass on to the city of
Shihezi, a frontier town built from scratch by the paramilitary
Production and Construction Regiments.

These regiments, made famous in China recently by a dramatic TV
series called Mother of the Gobi Desert, now produce about 13% of the
regional GDP and boast commercial companies that are listed on the
Shanghai Stock Exchange and run operations as far afield as Cuba and Mexico.
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