The riots in Ürümqi in July caused more than 200 deaths and led to the imposition of martial law. Though there were differing accounts of who was to blame – the police, for firing on ‘peaceful protestors’, or terrorists whose ‘goal was to undermine the social order’ – the violence was generally perceived as being due to resentment between Han Chinese and the Uighur minority.
On 17 August there were reports that people in Ürümqi had been attacked with hypodermic syringes. There were no casualties, and it was unclear who was responsible. But in the following weeks, as the stabbings continued, Han residents began to claim they were being targeted. The government confirmed that most of the victims were Han, but stressed that Uighurs and other ethnic groups had also been attacked. By 3 September the hospitals had reported a total of 531 cases. However, only 20 per cent of these showed any signs of physical injury, which suggests that the greater problem was the fear created by the attacks.
On the same day, large groups of Han Chinese assembled at junctions throughout the city, calling on the government to protect them. The police managed to maintain order, but the crowds returned the next day. On 5 September, Xinhua, the official news agency, reported that tens of thousands had taken to the streets. The police used tear gas to disperse the crowds, which led to five deaths and 14 people injured. Afterwards the city’s Communist Party secretary was removed from his post, along with the regional police chief. The authorities announced that they had charged four suspects, all Uighur, three of whom were said to be drug users. Officials warned that anyone convicted of further attacks could receive the death penalty. They also stressed that ‘Uighurs were among the protesting crowds,’ to play down the perception that the attacks were ethnically targeted.
Officials are hoping that these announcements (and an increased police presence) will placate Han residents. Yesterday a government report went out of its way to emphasise that all was under control by describing an idyllic scene in an Ürümqi park, where ‘more than 60 people, mainly senior citizens, were dancing to the tune of Paso Doble, while a father played badminton with his teenage son’.
But the speed with which the Party secretary and police chief were dismissed shows that the government knows the ethnic conflict in Xinjiang (much of which is due to their policies) remains politically dangerous. To appease the Han majority, they are likely to intensify their repression of Uighurs under the guise of targeting ‘separatism’. This will provoke even greater resentment among Uighurs, which may, in turn, produce further violence.