HONG KONG—Chinese authorities say tough penalties, including a possible death sentence, await anyone convicted in connection with the bizarre series of syringe stabbings in the northwestern city of Urumqi that prompted large-scale protests in recent days.
Beijing blames Muslim separatist groups among ethnic Uyghurs for the syringe attacks in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) capital, Urumqi, which was riven by deadly ethnic strife in July that claimed nearly 200 lives, according to the government’s tally.
More than 500 people have sought treatment in the recent attacks, though only about 100 showed signs of having been stabbed, official media said.
A visiting People's Liberation Army (PLA) medical team checked 22 patients who showed clear signs of having been stabbed, and a team leader said they were still undergoing tests for HIV, hepatitis, and sexually transmitted diseases.
The official Xinhua news agency meanwhile said authorities in Xinjiang would send more than 7,000 officials described as “harmony makers” to 110 communities in Urumqi “to help ease panic and tension after syringe attacks led to mass protests.”
“The officials will go door to door to explain policies and solve disputes,” Wang Lequan, secretary of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Regional Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), said late Sunday.
Propaganda trucks meanwhile continued broadcasting the message that the needle attacks were part of an organized plot to spread terror. Twenty-five people have been detained in connection with the stabbings, official media said.
Barricades were in place outside mainly Uyghur areas, and police remained out in force.
“There are armed police and special police everywhere,” said an Urumqi resident who identified herself by her surname, Zhang.
Urumqi Communist Party chief Li Zhi was sacked over the weekend and replaced by Zhu Haicang, the head of the Xinjiang region's law-and-order committee. Liu Yaohua, director of the Xinjiang Autonomous Regional Public Security Department, was also dismissed, according to official media.
Tens of thousands of angry Han Chinese took to the streets Thursday and Friday calling for the ouster of Wang Lequan, blaming him for failing to ensure their security.
Protests continued Saturday, one resident said in an interview, though he declined to be identified.
“Tear gas was used. Armed police and helicopters were deployed,” he said.
On Sunday, residents voiced disappointment that Wang—seen as an ally of the Chinese president, Hu Jintao—had kept his post.
“We wanted Wang Lequan to step down. Li Zhi is a scapegoat for Wang Lequan,” Ms. Zhang said.
Another Urumqi resident who took part in the protest said, “Our target was Wang Lequan. Our impression of Li Zhi has actually been fairly good.”
Wang has led Xinjiang, China's westernmost region adjacent to Central Asia, since 1994.
Under his leadership, Uyghurs have seen their language and culture increasingly marginalized and their religion, Islam, systematically weakened through a series of directives aimed at keeping young Muslims out of mosques and banned, in many instances, from visible outward expressions of their ethnic identity—such as wearing beards or headscarves.
Wang has pressed relentlessly for central government funding to secure Xinjiang’s economic development, bringing jobs and education that Uyghurs say have disproportionately benefited Han Chinese migrants to the region.
With Wang still in power, pressure appears likely to increase on the Xinjiang Uyghur population, experts say.
“Hard-liners are in the ascendant, and they have been essentially since Hu Yaobang was fired in the late 1980s,” said Gardner Bovingdon, a Uyghur and Central Asia expert at the University of Indiana, referring to the Communist Party chief who was sacked for sympathizing openly with protesting students in 1987.
“So we’re already talking about 20 years of hard-line policies. And unfortunately I think the July 5 protests [in Urumqi] and this new round of protests and the firing … all indicate that the government is going to go for still more rigorous political control,” Bovingdon said.
Original reporting by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Additional reporting by RFA’s Uyghur and Cantonese services and by news agencies. Written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.