After Deadly Riots, Ethnic Tensions Heat Up in Urumqi

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Guang Niu / Getty Images

Members of the Uighur community protest on July 7, 2009, in Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital in western China

Thousands of Han residents armed with clubs poured onto the streets of Urumqi on July 7, raising the risk of more racial violence in this western Chinese city. Just two days ago, the Xinjiang capital was thrown into chaos when protests by more than 1,000 members of the Uighur minority turned into a riot. Sunday's events left 156 people dead and more than 1,000 injured, the deadliest eruption of public violence in China since People's Liberation Army soldiers killed several hundred people during the 1989 crackdown on demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The club-wielding Han groups said they were responding to the threat of further Uighur violence. Sunday's outburst targeted Han Chinese, who make up 75% of Urumqi's population.

Earlier in the day, the Chinese government efforts at media management backfired dramatically, as a large group of women besieged an official tour of visiting journalists to protest the arrests of their husbands, sons and brothers. Six buses full of foreign and Chinese reporters had been taken to a neighborhood southeast of Urumqi's Grand Bazaar to see an auto dealership that was burned by rioters on July 5.

As reporters interviewed residents of the area, a Uighur woman with two children stumbled past sobbing. The woman said she was bereft over the disappearance of her husband. Soon after, a dozen Uighur women emerged from a market, marching down a four-lane road and chanting slogans. The journalists and cameras followed, and soon the protesters — mostly women and children but some men as well — swelled to about 300 as Foreign Ministry minders stood aside, watching helplessly.

Several women said family members had been detained in mass police arrests the previous day. "Free my husband! Free my husband!" cried a group of women wearing head scarves. "He has heart disease," one woman said of her arrested husband. "He didn't go out yesterday or the day before, but still they took him." The women estimated that thousands of men had been arrested. They dumped out plastic bags that held more than 100 pairs of footwear and trousers, which they said police had forced the detainees to take off when they were arrested. Urumqi Party Secretary Li Zhi had said earlier at a press conference that more than 1,000 people were arrested but that they were all taken while actively rioting.

As the women continued their protest in the road, they were met by several hundred military police carrying riot shields and truncheons. The police stood alongside four armored personnel carriers and attempted to push the demonstrators back. The protesters fell back, then advanced on the military police, who eventually retreated about 100 yards as a group of black-clad riot police advanced from the other direction. After about an hour, the protest faded down back alleys, and Foreign Ministry officials pushed reporters back onto buses. "It is hard for you to understand what it is like to be a Uighur," said a 25-year-old Uighur man named Musa, watching the women protest. "Uighur people can't get jobs."

The outburst punctured a tightly orchestrated effort to show the media the extent of the destruction wrought by the city's small Uighur community on July 5. Reporters were given a CD that showed several minutes of footage of the mostly Uighur rioters attacking civilians and destroying property. Unlike the official response to the deadly unrest last year in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, when the region was closed to outsiders for several months, journalists in Urumqi were given relatively free rein.

Before the women's march, the Xinjiang capital had been eerily quiet in the wake of Sunday's riots. Large groups of military police were stationed at key intersections on July 6, and only police vehicles, some with smashed windows, moved on the streets. Riot police stood outside the Hoi Tak Hotel as buses full of Hong Kong tourists were loaded in, their visit cut short by the disturbance.

Sunday's Urumqi riot was triggered by unrest in the southern coastal province of Guangdong, where a disgruntled former factory worker started a rumor that a group of Uighur workers had raped two Han women. That touched off a riot on June 26 that left two Uighur workers dead. Police later arrested the man who had started the rumor. This week's protest began as a peaceful demonstration by a group of about 1,000 Uighurs angered by the Guangdong riot. Witnesses said they shouted slogans in Uighur and Mandarin denouncing discrimination.

The Chinese government says the Xinjiang demonstrations and ensuing violence were provoked by Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur activist and businesswoman who lives in exile in the U.S., and the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), the Munich-based exile group she heads. Kadeer was imprisoned for nearly six years in China on a national security–related conviction, a charge she says was politically motivated. The WUC denied this week that it had any role in the violence and said security forces used heavy-handed methods to confront demonstrators who were attempting to protest peacefully for equal rights under the law.

On July 7, hotel staff members were seen taping up windows, and businesses were locking their employees inside in fear of further violence. A 38-year-old Han man surnamed Fu who has lived in Xinjiang all his life said he was accustomed to the discord. "We're used to it already," he said, then pointed to a scar on his arm that he said was the result of a fight with a Uighur man. "They're uncivilized."