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Ürümqi, Two Years On

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After the protests in Ürümqi on 5 July 2009, thousands of extra police and soldiers were brought into the city. On 7 July the authorities reported that almost 1500 people had been arrested for taking part in the demonstration, which they described as ‘a pre-empted, organised violent crime’. According to the authorities 184 people were killed, most of them Han Chinese. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International published eyewitness reports of official brutality during the ensuing crackdown, but there hasn’t been much corroborating evidence. Last week however a video appeared on YouTube that shows police and soldiers making arrests in Ürümqi. The clip appears to have been shot for state TV, since the reporter has permission to film.

The footage shows a succession of Uighur men being dragged into the street, handcuffed and made to lie face down. Their shirts are then pulled over their heads. At one point the soldiers enter a house and the cameraman isn’t allowed to follow. ‘It’s nothing,’ one of the officers says, just before a suspect is beaten and then the door is closed.

Most of the footage was taken in neighbourhoods with both Uighur and Han residents, which until the 2009 riots was common throughout Ürümqi (the population is two-thirds Han). The film shows bystanders hitting the arrested men with sticks or bats, and the police and soldiers doing little to stop them. When mobs of Han Chinese attacked Uighur neighbourhoods on 7 July in revenge for the killings two days earlier, the police and army similarly seemed to turn a blind eye (and even to arm the Han residents).

The film’s appearance just before the second anniversary of the riots may be part of an attempt to mobilise dissent, perhaps inspired by protests in other parts of China (not to mention the Middle East). The Chinese government is wary of such anniversaries. It seems likely that troops will return to the streets of Ürümqi in large numbers in the coming weeks.

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