The first several seconds of the incident in Urumqi seemed almost lighthearted, considering the previous week. And they revealed nothing about what would follow. A cool front had swept over the city on this particular day in July, drawing people from their homes. Some shops stayed closed because their windows had been shattered, but food vendors pushed their carts out onto the street. A week earlier an ethnic clash had broken out here, killing almost 200 people in one of China’s most deadly protests since the Tiananmen Square massacre two decades ago. So the Chinese government had sent tens of thousands of security forces into the city, the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, to restore order between the Han and the Uygurs. The Han dominate Chinese society, but the Uygurs (pronounced WEE-gurs), a Turkic-speaking Central Asian people, claim this western borderland as their ancestral home.
Han security forces stood in ranks along every street in the city's Uygur quarter. They bristled with riot gear and automatic weapons. The only sound came from loudspeakers mounted on trucks that trawled the market streets, broadcasting the good news of ethnic harmony. If Urumqi had an edge of unrest on this Monday, it was sheathed in silence.
Most Uygurs are Muslims, and about noon I stood on the street in front of a central mosque wondering how many people might be inside. As if in answer, a mass of humanity came pouring out, hundreds of people tumbling and plunging into the street.