By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
URUMQI, China, July 7 -- Clashes between Muslim Uighur protesters and security forces have killed at least 156 people in China's far west, state media said Monday, in what appears to be one of this country's bloodiest outbreaks of violence in recent history.
The capital of China's Xinjiang region, Urumqi, was under heavy guard after a crowd of rioters, estimated to number more than 1,000 and armed with knives and sticks, faced off against police in the city's main bazaar on Sunday, according to witnesses. As word of the fighting spread, smaller incidents of retaliatory violence erupted across Urumqi at universities, bus stops and restaurants.
Early Tuesday, the official New China News Agency reported that Chinese police had dispersed "more than 200 rioters" trying to gather at the main mosque in Kashgar, another city in Xinjiang.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that a fresh protest broke out in Urumqi, with about 200 Uighurs blocking a main road in a standoff with security forces. Some of the protesters were screaming that their husbands and children had been arrested, AP said.
State media reported Monday that more than 1,000 people had been injured in the Sunday rioting, and that more than 1,400 had been arrested. It was unclear who suffered the heaviest casualties -- protesters, bystanders or security forces. Telephone and Internet communication in the area was severely restricted, making it difficult to verify government reports. In Urumqi, the roads were empty Monday night, and stores and restaurants normally open late were closed.
Ethnic tensions are high in Xinjiang, which has experienced sporadic bursts of violence in recent years. Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority group, have long complained that, like ethnic Tibetans, they have been subjected to political, cultural and religious persecution under the rule of Han Chinese, the country's ethnic majority. The ruling Communist Party has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent tensions from flaring, particularly during this symbolic year, the 60th anniversary of Communist China's founding.
The violence in Xinjiang was in many ways reminiscent of the ethnic uprising in Tibet in spring 2008, when riots erupted after a protest in the capital, Lhasa. In those riots, which spread quickly throughout the region, the Chinese government insisted the death toll had been contained to 13, even as the Tibetan government in exile insisted the number was closer to 220.
In Washington, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that the administration is "deeply concerned" about the reports from China and called "on all in Xinjiang to exercise restraint." He added, however, that circumstances surrounding the incident were unclear. A State Department spokesman said officials would raise their concerns about the violence with China's deputy foreign minister, who was visiting Washington on Monday.
State TV reports showed Uighurs attacking Han Chinese bystanders but said nothing about deaths or injuries resulting from police action. The government blamed the bloodshed on exile groups and others it cast as agitators -- specifically Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur leader living in exile in the Washington area -- saying they are separatists plotting against Chinese rule. China made similar claims last year against the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
"Their accusations are completely false," Kadeer said at a news conference in Washington on Monday, speaking through an interpreter. "I did not organize the protests or call on the Uighurs to demonstrate."
She condemned the use of force by both sides and denounced what she called "brutal suppression" of her people by the Chinese government. She also called on the White House to release a stronger statement on the government's treatment of the Uighurs.
Uighur supporters plan to gather in Dupont Circle at 2 p.m. Tuesday and march to the Chinese Embassy, where a formal demonstration is to begin at 3:30.
Witnesses to the violence in Urumqi said that Sunday had started relatively peacefully, with several hundred demonstrators gathering to call for a more thorough investigation of the deaths of two Uighurs last month at a toy factory in southern China. The protesters had gathered in the Grand Bazaar, a marketplace where vendors hawk nuts, fruit and kebabs and where members of the Uighur community assemble at night.
Ao Simin, 60, who works at a retail store near the south gate of the bazaar, said he saw thousands of "Uighur young people" walking past his door shouting slogans. Ao said that although he had heard rumors about Han Chinese being beaten by Uighur protesters carrying sticks, he "saw them with empty hands." The city appeared calm.
Another witness, Adam Grode, 26, an American who is in Urumqi on a Fulbright scholarship, said that about 6:30 p.m., the situation turned. He said he saw protesters throwing stones and vegetables at police and smashing windows. Soon afterward, the police were "chasing them down with shields and fire hoses," he said.
Tang Yan, 21, a Han Chinese who works at a drugstore, said that her boss stepped outside, only to be leapt upon by Uighur rioters. The attackers -- carrying benches, tables and bricks -- reportedly smashed the windows of the store, then entered the supermarket next door and set it on fire. She fled with other employees of nearby stores to the safety of their homes.
"All the residents living in my building are Han Chinese. We were afraid that some people would rush in and hurt us. All the men in the building patrolled the courtyard the whole night," Tang recalled.
Han Chinese and Uighurs have occasionally clashed in Urumqi on a smaller scale. But the city, which is majority Han, was supposed to be a showcase for a more prosperous and stable Xinjiang.
Through a government campaign dubbed "Develop the West," some of China's most revered companies -- from the wealthy Han-dominated coastal areas -- have been given tax breaks, free rent and other incentives to expand their operations to this frontier.
Although the government has helped develop the region, workers from minority ethnic groups -- which include not only Uighurs but also Kazakhs and Mongolians -- complained that their Han bosses provided them with only menial work and hired other Hans for higher-paying skilled jobs.
Minority groups have also accused the government of pursuing a policy of cultural assimilation. Officials have expanded efforts to make Mandarin the dominant language. Male civil servants who were Uighur were told to shave the beards they had grown for religious reasons. And teachers and schoolchildren were ordered not to fast during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.
The protesters who initially gathered in Urumqi on Sunday appeared to have been mindful not to push their case too far.
Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress who is in exile in Sweden, said protesters reportedly carried a Chinese flag to show they were not part of an independence movement. He said demonstrators were shouting slogans such as "Stop racial discrimination" and "Punish the criminals severely."
Staff writer Greg Gaudio in Washington and researchers Zhang Jie in Urumqi and Liu Liu and Wang Juan in Beijing contributed to this report.