Racism Divides Urumqi

Experts fear worse yet to come in China's northwest.
2009-09-04
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Chinese riot police block off a street in downtown Urumqi, Sept. 4, 2009.
Chinese riot police block off a street in downtown Urumqi, Sept. 4, 2009.
AFP

HONG KONG—Five people have been killed and 14 wounded during protests over security in the northwestern Chinese city of Urumqi, a Chinese official has said.

Urumqi Deputy Mayor Zhang Hong said the five deaths occurred Thursday.

He spoke at a news conference in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and the site of deadly ethnic unrest in July.

Police meanwhile fired tear gas Friday to disperse crowds of Chinese marching on government offices, using more forceful measures than on Thursday.

Many Chinese residents have been unnerved by a recent spate of reported syringe stabbings of hundreds of people in the city of about 2.5 million people.

The crowds, ethnic majority Han Chinese, called on authorities to punish people awaiting trial for communal violence that left 197 people dead in early July in Urumqi. They also called Thursday for regional Communist Party boss Wang Lequan to resign.

Hong Kong Cable TV reported that paramilitary police had fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of about 1,000 near the city government offices early Friday.

Another Hong Kong broadcaster, RTHK, said some 5,000 Han Chinese carrying national flags protested peacefully on Renmin Road, demanding that Wang step down. The report said paramilitary police fired several tear gas rounds to disperse them.

Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu, sent to Urumqi to direct police action, said the same ethnic separatists Beijing says were behind the rioting that started July 5 also orchestrated the needle attacks.

"The needle stabbing incident is a continuation of the '7-5' incident, and it's plotted by unlawful elements and instigated by ethnic separatist forces," Meng said in comments broadcast on nationwide television.

"Their purpose is to damage ethnic unity."

Separatism alleged

UyghurMap2.jpg
A map of China's northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Credit: RFA RFA
Meng provided no evidence to back up his charges, nor has the government substantiated accusations that separatists incited July's violence.

By most accounts, the July riot started after police confronted protesters from the Muslim Uyghur ethnic group, who then attacked Han Chinese.

The official Xinhua news agency said Meng has been assigned to “[defuse] the ongoing unrest in the city.” China Central Television showed him visiting police, troops, and local residents.

In a nod to public anger, Meng vowed the government would speed up the process of charging and prosecuting the more than 1,200 people detained in the July riot.

Local police authorities said Friday that hospitals in Urumqi are now treating 531 people who believe they were attacked by hypodermic needles, 55 more than previously reported, Xinhua said.

About 106 of them showed "obvious signs" of needle attacks, it said, adding that most of the victims were Han Chinese.

None of the stabbing victims has so far showed any signs of infection or poisonings, state media have said.

Infection by AIDS is a concern, given Xinjiang's high rate of HIV cases, spread by needle-sharing among drug users.

Situation tense

A local Han resident, surnamed Wang, said the situation in Urumqi is very tense.

“Workers are afraid of going to work and kids are afraid of going to school. Society is in total chaos. No one feels safe and everyone is panicking. We need to press the government [to improve the situation],” Wang said.

Another Han resident, surnamed Cai, said Han in Urumqi want to organize to protect themselves from the perceived threat.

"Because of the government inaction, many Han Chinese want to settle the issue themselves.”

A protester who declined to give his name said many of the Han Chinese protesters are demanding political change.

“Some protesters shouted anti-corruption slogans. College students who joined the protests over the past two days were also complaining about corruption.”

'Hatred deepening'

Ilham Tohti, a prominent Beijing-based economist and member of China’s Uyghur ethnic minority, said ethnic differences in Urumqi are becoming more pronounced and will lead to further unrest.

“The hatred between Chinese and Ugyhurs is deepening. I think it is reaching a critical point," he said.

Tohti, a professor at Beijing's Central Nationalities University, said the government response to the recent Chinese protests was far less severe than its handling of the July 5 unrest, and that Uyghurs in the city would feel angered by the difference in treatment.

"The way the government handled the protesters is so different than the last time that they cracked down on the [Uyghur] protesters, even though the police used tear gas. The Uyghurs will compare these incidents," Tohti said.

"I am very anxious because even if you solve a war, it is difficult to solve the hatred between ethic groups,” he said.

Tohti was released without charge on Aug. 22 after more than one month in custody for allegedly promoting separatism by speaking out against the government’s handling of the July 5 riots.

He was detained after writing about the violence on his Web site, Uyghur Online.

Dru Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College, said the Chinese media are exacerbating the ethnic divide by only covering Chinese issues in the region.

"There hasn’t really been an attempt to have any balanced reporting—to try to report the Uyghur side of things ... they tend to only highlight whatever makes the Uyghur side look bad to the Chinese," Gladney said.

"Particularly leading up to the 60th anniversary [of the founding of the People's Republic of China], if they want to continue to try to portray the society as harmonious, why is it that these kinds of reporting tend to be so one-sided," he said.

Earlier riots

Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group, say the riots in July were sparked by an armed crackdown on unarmed Uyghur protesters calling for an investigation into an attack by Han Chinese on Uyghurs at a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province, the previous week.

In separate interviews, three Uyghur youths said the fighting in Shaoguan began when Han Chinese laborers stormed the dormitories of Uyghur colleagues, beating them with clubs, bars, and machetes.

The clashes began late June 25 and lasted into the early hours of the following day. At least two people were killed and 118 injured, and witnesses said the numbers could be higher.

A number of Uyghurs have voiced anger and bitterness over the clash and accused police of doing too little to stop it.

Uyghurs in Xinjiang have long chafed under Beijing's rule, citing economic inequality, religious controls, and lack of freedom of expression in a political climate where simply talking about Uyghur independence can lead to a jail term for subversion.

Original reporting by Qiaolong for RFA’s Mandarin service, Gai Lei Sze for RFA's Cantonese service, and Guliqiekela Keyoumu for RFA's Uyghur service. Additional reporting by wire services. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Translated by Feng Xiaoming, Shiny Li, and Guliqiekela Keyoumu. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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