Tens of Thousands Protest in Xinjiang

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Andy Wong / AP

Chinese paramilitary police line up at the People's Square in Urumqi in China's Xinjiang province on Sept. 4, 2009

Two months after violent protests, allegations of new attacks in the troubled western Chinese city of Urumqi touched off huge demonstrations on Sept. 3, with residents gathering in the city center to demand the government improve public security. Some in the crowd, estimated by official media to be in the tens of thousands, called for the resignation of Wang Lequan, the longstanding Communist Party chief of the Xinjiang region, news services reported. While the details of the unrest were bizarre — 21 people were arrested on suspicion of pricking pedestrians with tainted needles, according to state media — the return of unrest to Urumqi wasn't surprising.

On July 5 young Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority that largely practices Islam, rioted in the city, attacking majority Han Chinese. The riot was touched off when police aggressively blocked a protest over the death of two Uighurs during a June factory brawl in the coastal Guangdong province. Two days after the riot, thousands of Han gathered to carry out revenge attacks. Paramilitary forces were able to keep the revenge mobs from Urumqi's Uighur quarter, thus preventing another bloodbath. But some Uighurs were seriously beaten and possibly killed that day. All told, the July violence left nearly 200 dead and more than 1,600 injured.

By dispatching thousands of security forces in the city in July, the government showed it could prevent further mass attacks. But the tension is still evident. After the July violence, Uighurs, who make up about 15% of Urumqi's population, started leaving the city for towns like Kashgar, with larger Uighur concentrations. The Han majority are still angry about the deadly rioting. Hundreds of suspects were arrested following the July attacks, but there have been conflicting reports about when any trials will take place. On Thursday, after the new round of protests, the regional government said arrest warrants for the July events had been issued for 196 people and that 51 had already been prosecuted. Arrest warrants are being processed for another 239 suspects, the state-run Xinhua news service reported.

Thursday's protests were touched off by fears of further attacks on the city's Han majority by Uighurs. In the past three weeks 476 people have sought treatment for needle pricks, with 89 showing obvious needle marks, Xinhua reported. So far no deaths or disease transmissions have been reported, the news agency said. But with internet access and text messaging still restricted in the city, residents often rely on rumors as much as official news. Leaders including Wang and Urumqi party secretary Li Zhi spoke to the crowds gathered in the city center on Thursday in an attempt to prevent further violence. "To a large extent it seems that the protest (Thursday) was peaceful. If the government starts to respect the rights of people to demonstrate peacefully, we welcome this," says Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong – based researcher for the NGO Human Rights Watch. "But it shows the ongoing tensions and distrust that reign in Urumqi."

With preparations for Oct. 1 celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic now underway, authorities across the nation are even more wary of any disturbances. The official strategy has been to focus local outrage away from Urumqi's Uighur population and toward Rebiya Kadeer, a U.S.-based Uighur rights activist who China blames for instigating the violence — a claim she denies. But as this week's unrest shows, there's still plenty anger at home for them to worry about.