Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Uighur Uprising: continued signs of instability along the frontier

The street fighting in Urumqi and Kashgar indicate how much remains unresolved in the relations of power in Central Asia, that is, along the frontier of the former Soviet Union. And also the evident power of the new technology to enable collectivities to organize and coordinate in defiance of central power. The demonstrations in Iran have exposed the raw power that undergirds the system in place there. It is natural to wonder if the Uighur learned how to put it together by reading about the opposition movement in Iran. Could copy-cat movements develop elsewhere? We hear of tensions brewing elsewhere along the old Soviet border, that is, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Georgia. However it was done in Xinjiang, it is not over. Here is the NYTime report. RLC

July 8, 2009
New Protests in Western China After Deadly Clashes

URUMQI, China — Rival protesters took to the streets again on Tuesday, defying Chinese government efforts to lock down this regional capital of 2.3 million people and other cities across its western desert region after bloody clashes between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese.

The fighting, which erupted Sunday evening, left at least 156 people dead and more than 1,000 injured, according to the state news agency.

Police fired tear gas on Tuesday at Han Chinese protesters armed with clubs, lead pipes, shovels and hoes, news reports said. Earlier, in an attempt to contain China’s worst ethnic violence in decades, the authorities imposed curfews, cut off cellphone and Internet services and sent armed police officers into neighborhoods.

The official Xinhua news agency said an overnight curfew would again be imposed here on Tuesday night.

Despite the authorities efforts to bring the situation under control, hundreds of Uighur protesters defied the police, crashing a state-run tour of the riot scene for foreign and Chinese journalists.

A wailing crowd of women, joined later by scores of Uighur men, marched down a wide avenue Tuesday with raised fists and tearfully demanded that the police release Uighur men who they said had been seized from their homes after Sunday’s violence. Some women waved the identification cards of men who had been detained.

As journalists watched, the demonstrators smashed the windshield of a police car and several police officers drew their pistols before the entire crowd was encircled by officers and paramilitary troops in riot gear.

“A lot of ordinary people were taken away by the police,” a protester named Qimanguli, a 13-year-old girl clad in a white T-shirt and a black headscarf, said, crying. She said her 19-year-old brother had been detained on Monday, long after the riots had ended.

The initial confrontation later ebbed to a tense standoff between about 100 protesters, mostly women, some carrying infants, and riot police in black body armor and helmets, tear-gas launchers at the ready, in a Uighur neighborhood pocked with burned-out homes and an automobile sales lot torched during the Sunday riots.

But soon afterward, news reports said, hundreds of Han Chinese threw rocks and smashed shops owned by Uighurs, ignoring police who appealed to them over loudspeakers to disperse. At one point, some 300 Han Chinese marchers seemed to be heading toward a mosque, only to face clouds of tear gas, news reports said. And at one point, rival groups of protesters clashed until riot police moved in to set up a barrier between them, cheered on by Han Chinese protesters, Reuters reported.

The bloodshed here, along with the Tibetan uprising last year, shows the extent of racial hostility that still pervades much of western China, fueled partly by economic disparity and by government attempts to restrict religious and political activity by minority groups.

The rioting, which began as a peaceful protest calling for a full government inquiry into an earlier brawl between Uighurs and Han Chinese at a factory in southern China, took place in the heart of Xinjiang, an oil-rich desert region where Uighurs are the largest ethnic group but are ruled by the Han, the dominant ethnic group in the country.

Protests spread Monday to the heavily guarded town of Kashgar, on China’s western border, as 200 to 300 people chanting “God is great” and “Release the people” confronted riot police officers about 5:30 p.m. in front of the city’s yellow-walled Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosque in China. They quickly dispersed when officers began arresting people, one resident said.

Internet social platforms and chat programs appeared to have unified Uighurs in anger over the way Chinese officials had handled the earlier brawl, which took place in late June thousands of miles away in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province. There, Han workers rampaged through a Uighur dormitory, killing at least two Uighurs and injuring many others, according to the state news agency, Xinhua. Police officers later arrested a resentful former factory worker who had ignited the fight by spreading a rumor that six Uighur men had raped two Han women at the site, Xinhua reported.

But photographs that appeared online after the battle showed people standing around a pile of corpses, leading many Uighurs to believe that the government was playing down the number of dead Uighurs. One Uighur student said the photographs began showing up on many Web sites about one week ago. Government censors repeatedly tried to delete them, but to no avail, he said.

“Uighurs posted it again and again in order to let more people know the truth, because how painful is it that the government does bald-faced injustice to Uighur people?” said the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the government.

A call for protests spread on Web sites and QQ, the most popular instant-messaging program in China, despite government efforts to block online discussion of the feud.

By Tuesday morning, more than 36 hours after the start of the protest, the police had detained more than 1,400 suspects, according to Xinhua. More than 200 shops and 14 homes had been destroyed in Urumqi, and 261 motor vehicles, mostly buses, had been burned, Xinhua reported, citing Liu Yaohua, the regional police chief.

Police officers operated checkpoints on roads throughout Xinjiang on Monday. People at major hotels said they had no Internet access. Most people in the city could not use cellphones.

At the local airport, five scrawny, young men wearing black, bulletproof vests and helmets stood outside the terminal, holding batons. The roadways leading into the city center were empty early on Tuesday, except for parked squad cars and clusters of armored personnel carriers and olive military trucks brimming with paramilitary troops. An all-night curfew had been imposed.

Residents described the central bazaar in the Uighur enclave, where much of the rioting took place, as littered with the charred hulks of buses and cars. An American teacher in Urumqi, Adam Grode, and another foreigner said they had heard gunfire long after nightfall Sunday.

Xinhua did not give a breakdown of the 156 deaths, and it was unclear how many of them were protesters and how many were other civilians or police officers. There were no independent estimates of the number of the death toll. At least 1,000 people were described as having protested.

Photographs online and video on state television showed injured people lying in the streets, not far from overturned vehicles that had been set ablaze. Government officials gave journalists in Urumqi a disc with a video showing bodies strewn in the streets.

The officials also released a statement that laid the blame directly on Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman and human rights advocate who had been imprisoned in China and now lives in Washington. It said the World Uighur Congress, a group led by “the splittist” Ms. Kadeer, “directly ignited, plotted and directed the violence using the Shaoguan incident in Guangdong.” The statement said bloggers first began calling for the protest on Saturday night and also used QQ and online bulletin boards to organize a rally at People’s Square and South Gate in the Uighur quarter of Urumqi.

The World Uighur Congress rejected the accusations and said that it condemned “in the strongest possible terms the brutal crackdown of a peaceful protest of young Uighurs.” The group said in a statement on Monday that Uighurs had been subject to reprisals not only from Chinese security forces but also from Han Chinese civilians who attacked homes, workplaces or dormitories after the riots on Monday.

The violence on Sunday dwarfed in scale assaults on security forces last year in Xinjiang. It was deadlier, too, than any of the bombings, riots and protests that swept through the region in the 1990s and that led to a government clampdown.

Uighurs make up about half of the 20 million people in Xinjiang but are a minority in Urumqi, where Han Chinese dominate. The Chinese government has encouraged Han migration to many parts of Xinjiang, and Uighurs say that the Han tend to get the better jobs in Urumqi. The government also maintains tight control on the practice of Islam, which many Uighurs cite as a source of frustration.

But an ethnic Han woman who lives in an apartment near the central bazaar said in a telephone interview that the government should show no sympathy toward the malcontents.

“What they should do is crack down with a lot of force at first, so the situation doesn’t get worse, so it doesn’t drag out like in Tibet,” she said after insisting on anonymity. “Their mind is very simple. If you crack down on one, you’ll scare all of them. The government should come down harder.”

Michael Wines, Jonathan Ansfield and Xiyun Yang contributed reporting from Beijing, and David Barboza from Shanghai. Huang Yuanxi contributed research from Beijing, and Chen Yang from Shanghai.

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