Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines

CHINA: Han Chinese Blame Regional Chief for Xinjiang Unrest

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Sep 5 2009 (IPS) - Chinese communist party’s monopoly on power in the restive western region of Xinjiang is now contested not just by the disgruntled Turkic-speaking Uyghur ethnic group but also by the Han Chinese, who up till now had shown support of Beijing’s policies and rallied to defend its interests.

This week thousands of protesters, mostly Han Chinese, gathered near the government headquarters in the capital Urumqi, demanding the resignation of the communist party’s regional chief. "Down with Wang Lequan!" the crowds shouted, blaming him for the chaos and instability that had ensued after the region’s deadliest ethnic violence in July.

On July 5, protests by members of the Muslim Uyghur ethnic group escalated into violence and turned on the Han Chinese. Two days later, the Han Chinese retaliated by unleashing a series of revenge attacks on the Uyghurs. Official reports say 197 people died.

Tensions have simmered close to the surface ever since. The trigger for the new wave of protests, which erupted Thursday, was rumours of hit-and-run attacks on Han Chinese with HIV-tainted hypodermic syringes. The attacks with syringes started on Aug. 17, Xinhua news agency reported, adding that almost 500 people have sought treatment, including 89 who showed signs of having been attacked.

The government has acknowledged the attacks, saying the police have detained 21 suspects for investigation.

Panic spread quickly in the unsettled Urumqi. On Thursday, people vented out their frustration with Beijing’s inability to restore peace by coming out to protest. They targeted Wang Lequan, Beijing’s top strongman in the autonomous region and a well-known hardliner who had steered the wheel for 15 years, advocating no compromise for the Uyghurs’ calls for justice and autonomy.


Beijing insists that Uyghurs’ gripes are gripes for independence and has condemned their demands for religious freedom and genuine autonomy as separatist agitation.

Uyghurs, who make up less than half of Xinjiang’s 20 million people after years of government-mandated Han migration, complain of discrimination and unfair division of the region’s natural riches.

Yet challenges to Beijing from the Han Chinese majority are rare in a troubled ethnic minority region like Xinjiang. On Thursday more than 1,000 protesters faced armed police who stopped them entering Nanhu Square in the city centre, according to the Xinhua news agency. To help defuse unrest, Beijing dispatched public security minister Meng Jianzhu to the scene of the protests, the report said.

Almost immediately, Chinese officials linked the new riots to Rebiya Kadeer whom they blame also for the July 5 violence. "Rebiya Kadeer is a separatist and a criminal who has been sentenced according to law," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters in Beijing Thursday.

Kadeer, an Uyghur businesswoman once held by Chinese communist leaders as an example of successful entrepreneur in Xinjiang, is increasingly regarded as an independence icon by the Uyghur diaspora. Now an émigré in the United States, Kadeer has recently embarked on an international tour, speaking for the Uyghur cause and criticising Beijing’s heavy-handed policies in Xinjiang.

In her latest public appearance, Kadeer addressed the European Parliament’s human rights committee this week, accusing Beijing of mishandling the bloody riots in July.

A government expert on anti-terrorism issues called the new syringe attacks in Urumqi a "trap" designed by separatists intended on splitting China.

"The separatists tried to use the fear of terror to turn the pressure toward the government," Li Wei, director of the Centre for Counter-Terrorism Studies at the Beijing-based China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a research institution and think tank, was quoted as saying by the ‘Global Times’ newspaper. "They want to make Han and Uyghur people hate each other, thereby escalating ethnic tensions."

Published by the Communist party’s main news organisation, the ‘Global Times’ has been running a series of reports on Xinjiang's return to normality after the deadly riots. It devoted big coverage on a trade fair taking place in the capital Urumqi. Government officials have promoted the fair as a chance to shake off the economic stagnation brought on by the riots.

The violence broke out just days after the Chinese communist party chief Hu Jintao toured the autonomous region, calling for ethnic unity. During a visit to Urumqi where the July rioting started, Hu told government officials and security forces that stability was a top priority in the region.

"The key to our work in Xinjiang is to properly handle the relation between development and stability in the region," Xinhua quoted him as saying.

 
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