Fresh unrest broke out there Thursday as hundreds of Han Chinese protested in the capital, Urumqi, and there were unconfirmed reports that some of them had beaten up Uighur residents. The demonstrators are said to be angry over state media reports that unknown assailants in Urumqi have been stabbing residents with syringes.
Ethnic riots in July between its Muslim-majority Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese shut down the capital and left nearly 200 dead and 1,700 injured. It was one of China’s worst ethnic riots in decades.
The reaction to reported syringe stabbings underscores how fresh the wounds of July remain. The prospect of more unrest comes at a sensitive time for China, as it gears up to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the communist state next month.
People near the city center reached by telephone say hundreds, possibly thousands, of members of China's majority Han ethnic group have gathered downtown to denounce the regional government and deteriorating law and order in the city.
Han resident Zhao Jianzhuang said he had joined a large crowd of protesters at a downtown intersection who were being blocked by riot police from marching on central People's Square, less than 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) away.
He said people were pushing and shoving police and some in the crowd had been beaten. Participants were shouting slogans including "The government is useless," and calling for the dismissal of the regional Communist Party boss Wang Lequan, a noted hard-liner and ally of President Hu Jintao.
Workers belonging to the Han Chinese majority (who make up 90 percent of China's population) have been pouring into the mostly Muslim Uighur region of Xinjiang, rich in oil and gas, for 60 years.
Pushed to move under Mao Zedong (China's ruler from 1949-76), and more recently pulled by economic incentives, the Han have gone from 6 percent to more than 40 percent of the autonomous region's population.
State media said police have detained 15 people for the stabbing attacks that have increased ethnic tension in Urumqi.
"Han Chinese are complaining about the worsening social order," said one hotel worker in the city, who said she had seen a small protest by Han Chinese. "They resent the Uighurs for the stabbing thing."
Rumors of AIDS patients attacking pedestrians with hypodermic needles have previously swept China, but were later shown to be unfounded. State media did not say how many people had been stabbed in the reported attacks.
A doctor in Urumqi said the number may be as high as 1,000, but he could not confirm that. He had not personally treated any victims.