Monday, July 06, 2009

Ryan Pyle Blog: Violence in Urumqi


First off, I want to say the picture above is from Kashgar, my archive has nothing from Urumqi at the moment. On to the blog. See below.

Today I awoke in Shanghai to reports of civil unrest in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province in North West China. I was taken aback to be honest. There are reports of 140 dead and several hundred injured in what seems like a virtual repeat of what occurred in Tibet last March, prior to the Olympics.

It appears that local Uygur's targeted Han Chinese stores and business as well as innocent passers by. A group of about a 1000 Uygurs (as Xinhua reported) gathered in the main market area near the Grand Mosque in Urumqi and began causing the chaos. Urumqi has, for many years, been void of much interest. I've been dozens of times and can honestly say that it is often best avoided. It's market's are quiet, it's architecture is Chinese and the Uygur's are a minority. As an example of how stable Urumqi has been: Starwood Hotels even put their Sheraton brand on a local hotel there thinking that it was a safe and reliable place for business. Today that might have been turned on its head.

There is always more than meets the eye to these types of situations and this incident is no different. A few weeks ago there was a brawl at a toy factory in China's southern Guangdong province between Uygur migrant workers and Han migrant workers and two Uygurs were killed. Reports of this circled around within Uygur groups for weeks and that may have fanned the flames of violence witnessed in the last few hours.

The Chinese government, however, is suggesting that outside influences, such as pro Xinjiang independence groups that are based outside of China, are meddling in their internal affairs and helping to organize the riots. While that may be true, the people of Xinjiang, in my mind, don't need any outside influence to rise up at what has been a brutal authoritarian regime in Xinjiang; which has essentially destroyed an enter way of life and replaced it with one that is secular and alien to the region.

With that being said, Urumqi has often been a place of quiet peace, with incidents occurring in more far flung towns like Khotan and Kashgar. But this new wave of violence has occurred in the capital of the province; and from the looks of the video footage on BBC and CNN looks incredibly brutal.

The New York Times filed this peace earlier in the day from Beijing. My guess is that a lot of foreign journalists are making plans to get to Xinjiang as quickly as possible, but it will all be over by the time they arrive. Much like chasing any dissidents and protesters in China, it's akin to chasing ghosts. By the time the journalists arrive the streets are already repaved, the paint is already dry, and life is back to normal; minus the thousands thrown in jail without trial, representation or a legal leg to stand on. And so the cycle continues. it's happened again and again with both minorities people, such as Tibetans and Uygurs, and as well to the Han majority; both often feed up of favoritism and corruption that is tearing this country apart.

This is bound to get a lot of play in the Chinese media, as the propanda department seems to think that the government has a lot to gain by projecting the image that minority terrorist groups are trying to break apart the country and a strong hand is needed, not just in Xinjiang but throughout the entire Middle Kingdom.

My guess is that most of the dead were innocent Han Chinese bystanders or shop keepers, hence the Chinese media coverage, much like the riots in Lhasa. If that is true, it begs the question: "To what end?" What gains can be achieved by killing innocent Han Chinese shop keepers and bus drivers? Does that send the right message? While their anger and frustration may be justified, in a democratic and free Western civilization, their end results are far from potent. Having the majority of the country, that being the Han, think that the Uygurs hate them and want to kill everyone at first glance sends entirely the wrong message; and in many ways this plays in to the hands on the government who are looking for excuses to clamp down harder. In Lhasa last March three young Han Chinese girls died when Tibetan's set fire to their clothing store in Lhasa; a death penalty for selling clothes is hardly forwarding the cause of Tibetan independence, and it won't help at all for the Uygurs either. If these types of events are organized abroad then they are poorly though out and executed; my guess is that the events we have been witnessing over the last day and a half were organic and nothing more than a bit of mob rule.

If the Uygurs, and the Tibetans alike, want more autonomy and more independence I don't think they'll further their cause by killing Han Chinese shop keepers and taxi drivers. As I mentioned above they are playing in to the hands of their masters. But perhaps things have become so desperate and hopeless that this is all that is left, mob rule and random lethal force, and if that is true we are in for a brutal cycle of violence. Below is Ed Wong's story from earlier today. My guess is that the NYT will have someone on the ground in the coming hours.

Copy write: New York Times
Ethnic Clashes in Western China Are Said to Kill Scores


BEIJING — The Chinese state news agency reported Monday that at least 140 people were killed and 816 injured when rioters clashed with the police in a regional capital in western China after days of rising tensions between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese.

The casualty toll, if confirmed, would make this the deadliest outbreak of violence in China in many years.

The rioting broke out Sunday afternoon in a large market area of Urumqi, the capital of the vast, restive desert region of Xinjiang, and lasted for several hours before riot police officers and paramilitary or military troops locked down the Uighur quarter of the city, according to witnesses and photographs of the riot.

At least 1,000 rioters took to the streets, throwing stones at the police and setting vehicles on fire. Plumes of smoke billowed into the sky, while police officers used fire hoses and batons to beat back rioters and detained Uighurs who appeared to be leading the protest, witnesses said.

The casualty numbers appeared to be murky and shifting on Monday. Xinhua, the state news agency, said the toll so far was 140 dead and 828 wounded, citing regional police officials. Earlier, Xinhua had reported that three civilians and one police officer were killed.

One regional official reached by telephone put the death toll at 105 and said at least 800 people had been injured. One American who watched the rioting at its height said he did not see people being killed or corpses in the streets, though he said he did see Uighurs shoving or kicking a few Han Chinese. Images of the rioting on state television showed some bloody people lying in the streets and cars burning.

Dozens of Uighur men were led into police stations on Sunday evening with their hands behind their backs and shirts pulled over their heads, one witness said. Early Monday, the local government announced a curfew banning all traffic in the city until 8 p.m.

The riot was the largest ethnic clash in China since the Tibetan uprising of March 2008, and perhaps the biggest protest in Xinjiang in years. Like the Tibetan unrest, it highlighted the deep-seated frustrations felt by some ethnic minorities in western China over the policies of the Communist Party, and how that can quickly turn into ethnic violence. Last year, in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, at least 19 people were killed, most of them Han civilians, according to government statistics.

Many Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group, resent rule by the Han Chinese, and Chinese security forces have tried to keep oil-rich Xinjiang under tight control since the 1990s, when cities there were struck by waves of protests, riots and bombings. Last summer, attacks on security forces took place in several cities in Xinjiang; the Chinese government blamed separatist groups.

Early Monday, Chinese officials said the latest riots were started by Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur human rights advocate who had been imprisoned in China and now lives in Washington, Xinhua reported. As with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, Chinese officials often blame Ms. Kadeer for ethnic unrest; she denies the charges.

The clashes on Sunday began when the police confronted a protest march held by Uighurs to demand a full government investigation of a brawl between Uighur and Han workers that erupted in Guangdong Province overnight on June 25 and June 26. The brawl took place in a toy factory and left 2 Uighurs dead and 118 people injured. The police later arrested a bitter ex-employee of the factory who had ignited the fight by starting a rumor that six Uighur men had raped two Han women at the work site, Xinhua reported.

There was also a rumor circulating on Sunday in Urumqi that a Han man had killed a Uighur in the city earlier in the day, said Adam Grode, an English teacher living in the neighborhood where the rioting took place.

“This is just crazy,” Mr. Grode said by telephone Sunday night. “There was a lot of tear gas in the streets, and I almost couldn’t get back to my apartment. There’s a huge police presence.”

Mr. Grode said he saw a few Han civilians being harassed by Uighurs. Rumors of Uighurs attacking Han Chinese spread quickly through parts of Urumqi, adding to the panic. A worker at the Texas Restaurant, a few hundred yards from the site of the rioting, said her manager had urged the restaurant workers to stay inside. Xinhua reported few details of the riot on Sunday night. It said that “an unknown number of people gathered Sunday afternoon” in Urumqi, “attacking passers-by and setting fire to vehicles.”

Uighurs are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang but are a minority in Urumqi, where Han Chinese make up more than 70 percent of the population of two million or so. The Chinese government has encouraged Han migration to the city and other parts of Xinjiang, fueling resentment among the Uighurs. Urumqi is a deeply segregated city, with Han Chinese there rarely venturing into the Uighur quarter.

The Uighur neighborhood is centered in a warren of narrow alleyways, food markets and a large shopping area called the Grand Bazaar or the Erdaoqiao Market, where the rioting reached its peak on Sunday.

Mr. Grode, who lives in an apartment there, said he went outside when he first heard commotion around 6 p.m. He saw hundreds of Uighurs in the streets; that quickly swelled to more than 1,000, he said.

Police officers soon arrived. Around 7 p.m., protesters began hurling rocks and vegetables from the market at the police, Mr. Grode said. Traffic ground to a halt. An hour later, as the riot surged toward the center of the market, troops in green uniforms and full riot gear showed up, as did armored vehicles. Chinese government officials often deploy the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force, to quell riots.

By midnight, Mr. Grode said, some of the armored vehicles had begun to leave, but bursts of gunfire could still be heard.

Ryan Pyle


  1. Anonymous11:52

    Ryan's post is very logical and neutral.
    But what do you think of Wong's

  2. Anonymous,
    Which one of Edward's stories are you talking about? He has been there since Monday and reporting constantly.


  3. Anonymous10:30

    I read many comments about Wong's report, and most people blame the Chinese government for the casualties and cite there was only a peaceful protest. But in reality or at least from my understanding it was a bloody riot that Uighurs killing Han Chinese and destroying the city.



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Ryan Pyle