Deadly riots in western China take unprecedented toll

The violence brings into question China's hard-line policy against Uighur ethnic minority.

Source: AP/Reuters/ESRI

Simmering ethnic tensions in the mainly Muslim west of China erupted Sunday night into the country's deadliest rioting in decades, as demonstrators and police clashed violently.

State media put the death toll at more than 140, and portrayed the mayhem in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang autonomous region, as a rampage by Muslim Uighurs against Han Chinese bystanders. Uighur representatives abroad denied that account, and blamed the security forces for most of the deaths.

Muslim Uighurs have long chafed under what they feel is repressive rule by the nation's Han Chinese majority. They resent Beijing's drive to populate Xinjiang with Han settlers from the east of the country, its clampdown on religious practice, and Uighurs' relegation to mostly menial jobs.

"There have been widespread discontents, and things have boiled over," says Dru Gladney, an expert on Xinjiang at Pomona College.

The Chinese authorities, meanwhile, say they fear that Uighur radicals are seeking to break away from China, and last month launched a new "strike hard campaign" of arrests in Xinjiang, local residents say.

Sunday's violence apparently broke out after a peaceful demonstration got out of control. A provincial government spokesman said Monday that more than 260 vehicles had been attacked or burned, and that 203 houses had been damaged. He put the number of injured at 828.

Pressure for investigation of killings

The demonstrators had been demanding that the government investigate the deaths of two Uighur migrant workers who were killed last month in the southern province of Guangdong in a mob attack on their dormitory by Han Chinese co-workers. The Uighurs had been accused of raping a Han woman – falsely, according to local Guangdong authorities. Nobody has yet been charged with the two murders.

Nur Bekri, chairman of the Xinjiang regional government, charged Monday that exile Uighurs had used the Guangdong incident to instigate Sunday's violence.

Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur exile leader living in the United States, "had phone conversations with people in China on July 5 in order to incite, and websites…were used to orchestrate the incitement and spread propaganda," Mr. Bekri said.

Dolkun Isa, secretary-general of the World Uighur Congress, denied in a telephone interview that exiles had sparked the violence. Although his Munich-based group had called on Uighurs to demonstrate in front of Chinese embassies in Europe Friday, he said, "we never called for protests inside China.

"We knew that would provoke a crackdown, and we did not want to take the responsibility for that," Mr. Isa said.

He claimed that an informant in Urumqi had told him that the death toll had reached 600, and that "95 percent of the victims are Uighurs" who died at the hands of the police and paramilitary forces sent to break up the demonstration.

The authorities in Beijing have given no details of the 140 victims they acknowledge, but video footage shown on television portrayed bloodied Han Chinese civilians being kicked and beaten.

The official portrayal of the rioting echoed government accounts of the violence that struck the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in March 2008, when a mob burned shops and killed 19 non-Tibetans. Mr. Bekri's allegation of exile Uighurs' role in Sunday's riot also recalled Beijing's charges that the Dalai Lama was behind the incident in Lhasa.

Unprecedented scale of clash

Ethnic tensions have been bubbling beneath a generally calm surface in Xinjiang for many years, sparking the occasional outbreak of violence and feeding sympathy for militants who have been waging a sporadic separatist campaign. Sunday's riot was unprecedented, however, in its scale and death toll.

The violence underlined the fact that "the hardline approach" to Uighur grievances "clearly has not worked," says Professor Gladney.

"There is discussion among officials and scholars in Beijing about the need for new thinking," he adds. "In the long run, though publicly the government would not want to acquiesce in the face of violence, this could broaden awareness of the severity of the problem and the need to find new approaches to it."

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