Police in the violence-stricken city of Urumqi have threatened rumor-mongers with jail terms, as officials strive to keep an uneasy peace after five people died in demonstrations last week.
The move appeared to be an attempt to calm a panicky population scared by reports of street stabbings with hypodermic needles.
Anxiety and anger at the government's handling of the alleged incidents brought thousands of people onto the streets last week, demanding the resignation of Wang Lequan, Communist party leader of the far-western region of Xinjiang.
Mr. Wang has kept his job, but the Urumqi party secretary was fired Saturday, along with the region's police chief.
Though some observers have suggested this indicated a victory for "people power," others argue that it simply illustrates the smooth operation of the ruling party.
"It was not the protests that brought them down, it was their failure to meet the protests," says Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst. "When individuals fail in their performance they get sacked."
A police announcement reported late Sunday night by Xinhua, the official news agency, warned that anyone caught stabbing passers-by with needle-tipped syringes could face the death penalty. Rumors that minority Uighurs had been attacking Han Chinese had swept the Xinjiang capital for days.
The police added that "those who deliberately concoct and spread false information about innocent members of the public being stabbed with needles" could be jailed for five years or more, according to Xinhua.
While 531 people have gone to hospitals complaining of having been stabbed, only 20 percent of them show any signs of puncture marks, according to official media.
Xinhua reported that four Uighurs have been convicted of syringe assaults – one addict resisting arrest with a heroin-filled syringe, two using a needle to threaten and rob a taxi driver, and one young man accused of sticking a pin into a woman's backside.
The scale of the resulting unrest – as many as 10,000 people were reported to have protested last week – reveals the ongoing racial tension that has split Urumqi since murderous riots last July.
One hundred and ninety seven people – almost all of them ethnic Han – were killed July 5th in an explosion of resentment by Uighurs, who have long complained that they are treated like second class citizens in their own homeland.
The beleaguered local government now finds itself under pressure from both sides of the ethnic divide. "The problem of satisfying the Uighurs is infinitely complicated by the need to placate the Han," says Dr. Leigh Moses.
"And the more the government feels it has to do something now," in time for celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1, he adds, "the less likely it is that patient discussions dealing with the underlying tensions will occur."