Chinese authorities announced today that some 140 people had been
killed and over 800 wounded in protests that roiled Urumqi, the capital
of China’s far western Xinjiang province, on Sunday. According to
the official news agency Xinhua, Urumqi police chief Liu Yaohua told a
press conference that the number of dead was still rising and that there
had also been extensive damage to property.
The enormous loss of life marked a bloody milestone in Beijing’s
administration of the troubled zone, in which Muslim Uighurs make up the majority of the population. It also presages a severe tightening of the already
vise-like grip the authorities maintain on the semiautonomous region, one that could be even harsher than the crackdown that followed the violent
suppression of protests in the Tibetan capital Lhasa in March of 2008.
Officials said that several hundred protesters had already been arrested
and some 90 more were still being sought on Monday afternoon. “I fear for what is to come,” said
Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher for New York-based Human Rights
Watch. “China has a very poor record of accountability when it comes to
those arrested for protesting. In Tibet, for example, there are still
hundreds unaccounted for by the government’s own admission.”
Liu told the official news agency that rioters burned 261 motor vehicles and around 200 shops yesterday in violence that was, according to an earlier Xinhua report, “masterminded from overseas by the separatist World Uighur
Congress led by Rebiya Kadeer.” Sections of the city populated by
concentrations of ethnic Uighurs, who make up only around 10% of
Urumqi’s population, were reportedly under curfew Monday.
Alim Seytoff, a spokesman for the WUC, a Washington, D.C.-based Uighur
exile group founded by Rebiya Kadeer, denied it had had any role
organizing the protests. “It is shocking to see the extent of the lethal
force the Chinese government used against peaceful, unarmed protesters,”
Alim said in a telephone interview. “This is the darkest day in recent
Alim said the demonstrations were a reaction to a June 26 incident at a
factory in Guangdong province, when two Uighur workers were beaten to
death by Han Chinese colleagues. “The mob in Guangdong beat and killed
Uighurs with immunity,” Alim says. “The security forces didn’t arrest
anyone and did absolutely nothing. The protesters were very angry and
disappointed.” Alim added that the WUC believed that more than two
Uighurs may have died in the Guangdong incident.
China blames ongoing unrest in the far-flung province on separatist
groups seeking an independent state of East Turkestan. During the 1980s
and early ’90s, Xinjiang experienced a number of bombings and protests,
but had been quiet up until the time of the Beijing Olympics in August 2008. In the lead-up to the Games and after, separatist groups
allegedly staged several fatal attacks on Chinese security forces.
Responsibility for two deadly bus bombings in Shanghai and Yunnan
province during the same period, meanwhile, was also claimed by a Uighur
separatist group, a claim Beijing denies, calling the incidents accidents.
Dru Galdney, a professor of anthropology at Pomona College in California
and author of numerous articles and books on the region, said it was
particularly notable that Sunday’s protests took place in Urumqi, where
Uighurs make up only a tiny proportion of the population. “Urumqi is the
center of Chinese power and influence in Xinjiang and there haven’t been
any protest there since the early ’90s, which makes this very, very
unusual,” says Galdney. Bequelin of Human Rights Watch concurred, noting
that not only is the Uighur population small but that the city was
already under very tight control by the security forces, meaning that
“such a shockingly high death toll must have meant a complete break own
of law and order.”
Urumqi is also home to a number of universities, and students were
reportedly well represented among the protesters. According to Alim of
WUC, after the street protests had been stopped, Chinese security forces
“stormed into Xinjiang University and several other universities,
entering the dormitories and arresting students.” He said many students
were killed in front of the gates of the university by armed security
forces shooting automatic weapons and using armored personnell carriers.
Reaction in China outside of Xinjiang has been muted so far, largely
because as is usual with issues considered sensitive by the authorities,
major Chinese websites have all removed or shut down readers’ comments — a traditional channel for the Chinese to weigh in on
current affairs. On mitbbs.cn, a popular online
chat room frequented by overseas Chinese, responses reflect a rush of
nationalism. “We must spare no violence to unify our nation,” writes one
netizen named “welltwo.” “I support tough military crackdown,” says
another. “They [the rioters] deserve no explanation.” Meanwhile, news
about information lockdown in Xinjiang has been widely spread and
criticized through the microblogging website, Twitter.
Economic factors also probably played a role in the protests, says
Gladney of Pomona College, in part because of frustration among the
large numbers of young Uighur men who cannot find work, a situation they
often blame on the large influx of Han from other parts of China whom
they believe are given preferential treatment by both private and
government employers. He also believes that the street protests in
Tehran and other Iranian cities that followed the recent presidential
election may have influenced protesters in Urumqi.
Alim of the WUC denied that either factor lay at the root of the
eruption of anger. “The real cause,” he says, “is six decades of heavy-handed repression by the Chinese government in Xinjiang that has reduced
Uighurs to second-class citizens in their own homeland. If we speak up we
get killed. If we don’t speak up we will be wiped out as a people in a
few decades” by Han Chinese immigration and forced assimilation.
Bequelin of Human Rights said the feeling of helplessness and
desperation conveyed by those words gives a strong indication of the
forces driving the Uighur protesters. “You could say they were suicidal,” Bequelin said.
“They knew the terrible consequences of protesting for themselves and
their families and yet they went out anyway.”
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