As Unrest Spreads, Chinese President Skips Summit
Clashes Continue in Western City Amid Crackdown
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
URUMQI, China, July 8 — Chinese President Hu Jintao canceled plans to attend a major summit in Italy and flew home early Wednesday after reports that chaos and panic had spread throughout the capital of China’s far western region of Xinjiang.
Since clashes erupted Sunday between the region’s Muslim Uighur minority and the dominant Han Chinese, leaving more than 150 dead, the government has deployed police and paramilitary troops, closed mosques, instituted a curfew and rounded up at least 1,400 people. Hu’s withdrawal from the Group of Eight summit, reported by state media, signaled his government’s growing concern about the unrest that continued to flare across this city.
Early Tuesday, a group of several hundred Uighur protesters, most of them women in head scarves, gathered to demand that their detained husbands and brothers be released and their dead be accounted for. At midday, Uighur and Han Chinese men traded blows at the train station until riot police dispersed them with tear gas. In the late afternoon, hundreds of Han Chinese men armed with everyday items such as kitchen knives, shovels, hammers and pipes began smashing Uighur food stalls and stores, and headed to a local mosque.
Around the same time, the No. 2 People’s Hospital was under siege as protesters demanding the bodies of the dead, which have not yet been released to the families, clashed with police who fired warning shots at the crowd.
Witnesses reported casualties in Tuesday’s clashes, but the local government did not immediately say how many people had been injured or killed, if any.
The continuing violence underscored the extent of the mistrust between Uighurs and Han Chinese and how close the city remains to another major clash. The conflict erupted after what started as a peaceful demonstration by Uighurs apparently spun out of control. Since then, protests have broken out in Kashgar, Yili, Aksu and other major cities in Xinjiang.
There were protests overseas as well. At the Chinese Embassy in Amsterdam, demonstrators on Tuesday threw stones and eggs and burned a Chinese flag; in Munich, Molotov cocktails were tossed at the Chinese consulate’s front gate; a small group of demonstrators also rallied in Washington.
The Chinese government has sought to play down any violence carried out by government troops and instead has focused on the rioting against Han Chinese. In one segment repeatedly aired by the state-run CCTV, a Han woman was shown bleeding on a street as Uighur men threw bricks at her. Local officials have declined to release the full ethnic breakdown of the dead and injured but have said that at the People’s Hospital, 233 of the 291 victims were Han, 39 were Uighur and the rest were from other ethnic groups.
Zhao Zongyu, a 45-year-old Han shoe seller, said he had witnessed dozens of Han Chinese beating up about five young Uighurs because the attackers felt they were being “too happy and arrogant.” He said he was worried that some Han Chinese are now eager to seek retribution for the damage caused by Uighur rioters Sunday.
“I beat you, and you beat me. I don’t know when the revenge will finish. This is the big problem facing all of us,” Zhao said.
The violence is largely rooted in Uighur resentment toward Han Chinese. Ever since the government initiated a campaign to expand development to this western frontier, Uighurs have complained that they have been subject to political, cultural and religious persecution. A number of Uighurs say the government is now trying to cover up killings by security forces.
One Uighur man in Urumqi, who asked that his name not be used because he feared arrest, said police have cordoned off Uighur neighborhoods and have been raiding homes to arrest people at random.
On Tuesday at one end of the Uighur quarter, where stores and restaurants had just reopened, the scene looked almost normal around lunchtime, with residents running daily errands. But shortly before 2, word spread through phone calls, text messages and word of mouth that Han attackers were on the way.
In a Han area half an hour later, people began to flee when a man raced across a bridge and shouted, “The Uighurs are coming!”
On Changjiang Street, a mostly Han cluster of stores near the bazaar where the rioting occurred Sunday, thousands of men and women of all ages stood with weapons. In one cluster of about a dozen people, a man stood banging his stick on the ground. “If we see Uighur people, we will beat them — except the women,” he said to cheers.
Not everyone was armed for an offensive attack.
As they waited on the street for someone to take them home, two Han siblings — a woman armed with a wooden stick and her brother, who carried a shovel and a box cutter — warily scanned the street for signs of unrest.
“You can’t say all Uighurs are bad, but some are cruel. You have to protect yourself and your family,” said the man, a 21-year-old college graduate, who provided only his last name, Li.
Researchers Zhang Jie in Urumqi and Wang Juan and Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.