By Kathrin Hille
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 7, 2009
URUMQI, China, Sept. 6 -- When the Zhang family's more than 150 wedding guests gathered at the Phoenix Hall restaurant in Urumqi on Saturday night, there was one main topic of conversation: Will he stay or will he go?
The person in question was not the groom but Wang Lequan, the regional Communist Party chief.
Wang's position as the strongman ruling Xinjiang, a multiethnic region in western China, had been uncontested for 15 years. But last week, tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding his resignation. The protesters were mainly from the Han majority, outraged by a series of syringe stabbing attacks attributed to the minority Uighurs, and complaining that Wang had botched the response to ethnic riots in early July that the government said left 197 people dead, mostly Han Chinese.
The unpopularity of Wang is bad news for China's central government. At the Central Party School, which trains high-ranking officials, Wang was a classmate of Hu Jintao, China's president and Communist Party general secretary. The two are still considered close allies.
Beijing has long relied on Wang to make sure that the long-standing discontent among Xinjiang's Muslim Uighur population does not spread and thus pose a threat to broader political stability in China. The July riots and the ongoing protests have damaged that trust. The Communist Party is even more determined to maintain stability than usual as it prepares to reaffirm its grip on power with celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1.
That is why on the streets of Urumqi, the theory is that Wang has less than a month left in office. Many Xinjiang residents believe he must be in trouble with Beijing because he has not appeared on state television since last week's protests.
But analysts say removing Wang would be close to impossible. "As a provincial party chief, you will only be demoted if you're corrupt or if you're dead," said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst.
As a member of the Politburo, the pinnacle of political power in China, Wang could be removed only through a majority vote in the Communist Party's central committee, followed by a Politburo decision. And removing an official as senior as Wang could send a signal beyond Xinjiang that the Chinese people have the power to expel officials -- a concept at odds with the very core of the country's political system.
An increasing number of officials across the country have been replaced in the past year for mishandling local grievances, but the government has taken care not to widely publicize that these moves followed sometimes violent protests.
That leaves the government with the task of winning back the trust of Urumqi's unhappy Han residents, many of whom believe the government has not been tough enough with Uighur participants in the July riots. Although the city has returned to an uneasy calm under heavy police presence, some Han in Xinjiang remain defiant.
Authorities sought to appease Urumqi's Han residents over the weekend by firing the city party secretary and the regional police chief. Just as the Zhangs' guests started arriving for the wedding reception, news broke that Li Zhi, the party secretary, had been replaced with Zhu Hailun, head of Xinjiang's law and order commission.
But that was not enough, according to Que Wei, one of the wedding guests. "Wang Lequan has to go," he said. "I trust Li Zhi and I trust Zhu Hailun, but I don't believe a word Wang Lequan says."