China seals cities battered by ethnic fighting

Rioting kills at least 156; Protests spread to western border

In Urumqi, in China's far west Xinjiang Province, residents described the charred hulks of buses and cars following two days of clashes between Uighurs, Han Chinese, and police. In Urumqi, in China's far west Xinjiang Province, residents described the charred hulks of buses and cars following two days of clashes between Uighurs, Han Chinese, and police. (Peter Parks/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Edward Wong
New York Times / July 7, 2009
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

URUMQI, China - The Chinese government locked down this regional capital of 2.3 million people and other cities across its western desert region yesterday and early today, imposing curfews, cutting off cellphone and Internet services, and sending armed police officers into neighborhoods after clashes erupted on Sunday evening between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese.

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

It was the deadliest occurrence of ethnic violence in China in decades. The bloodshed, 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 government attempts to restrict religious and political activity by minority groups.

The riot, 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 yesterday to the heavily guarded oasis town of Kashgar, on China’s remote western border, as 200 to 300 people chanting “God is great’’ and “Release the people’’ confronted riot police officers at 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, according to the state news agency, Xinhua, Han workers rampaged through a Uighur dormitory, killing at least two Uighurs and injuring many others. 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 websites about a 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 websites and the most popular instant-messaging program in China despite government efforts to block online discussion of the feud.

By this 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.

Police officers operated checkpoints on roads leading into Urumqi yesterday. People at major hotels said they had no Internet access. Most people in the city could not use cellphones.

At the 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 today except for parked squad cars and clusters of armored personnel carriers and olive drab 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 one other foreigner said they had heard gunfire long after nightfall on Sunday.

Xinhua did not provide a breakdown of the 156 deaths, and it was unclear how many of the dead were protesters.