Ethnic unrest in north-west China

After rioting in Xinjiang left 156 people dead and more than 1,000 injured, parallels are being drawn with last year's unrest in Tibet. But unlike then, authorities are 'grabbing the initiative' to shape the news. Just as they did after Tibet's riots, Chinese officials have been quick to blame the unrest on foreigners intent on severing the region from China to become an independent state.

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Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, reported on Monday that 156 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured when rioters clashed with the police in a regional capital of northwest China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region after days of rising tensions between members of the Uighur ethnic group and Han Chinese. BBC News reported that Chinese police have since arrested 1,434 people in connection with the rioting. The number of casualties, if confirmed, would make this the deadliest outbreak of violence in China since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. "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," The New York Times reported. "At least 1,000 rioters took to the streets, stoning 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. "Protests spread to a second city, Kashgar, as 200 to 300 people chanting 'God is great' and 'Release the people' confronted the riot police in front of that city's main mosque, the largest in China, about 5.30pm. But they quickly dispersed when officers moved into the crowd and began making arrests, one Kashgar resident, a witness to the incident, said in a telephone interview." Tania Branigan reporting from Urumqi for The Guardian said: "Already there are conflicting explanations of why an apparently peaceful protest by young Uighurs led to mob violence and slaughter. The Chinese authorities blame Uighur exiles for orchestrating the riots. But the World Uighur Congress allege that police shot and beat to death demonstrators as they crushed a peaceful protest. " 'It's not good to talk about it,' said one Han worker in Urumqi today. Like many residents, he was reluctant to talk and refused to be identified. Then he added: 'Before this I felt safe, but a lot of Uighur people don't like us. They say there are too many Han people here.' "Down the road, a Uighur agreed that the causes of unrest lay within China. 'Uighur and Han people here don't get on,' he said. 'There was a lot of fighting, but it was mostly Uighurs who got hurt.' "The events in Urumqi have obvious echoes of last year's fatal riots in Tibet, which began in Lhasa and quickly spread. In that case, too, the authorities blamed ethnic minority exiles for fomenting violence while Tibetans accused the government of killing scores of people. "But the official response is markedly different. While authorities banned the foreign media from entering Tibet and large swaths of Tibetan areas last year, this time they set up a special media centre, arranged an official tour of the riot zone and the People's hospital, and distributed footage." The New Yorker noted: "A striking feature of the riots unfolding in the far western province of Xinjiang this week is that the Chinese press is actively reporting it. On Monday afternoon, for instance, the state-run news service was announcing that the death toll had risen to one hundred and forty, and that the unrest had 'bruised the beautiful city of Urumqi and shocked the world, barely sixteen months after the nightmarish Lhasa violence that still clings to many Chinese minds.' It is a remarkable contrast with the posture of the Chinese press three or four years ago, when Chinese authorities punished editors who covered acts of unrest that might suggest social tension in the countryside. "Not anymore. As David Bandurski of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong points out in a characteristically smart post, this new policy of actively reporting mass unrest is part of a fundamental shift in Party ideological strategy that Bandurski and his colleague Qian Gang have dubbed 'Control 2.0'. In short, that strategy means 'overtures of "transparency" within the context of tightening control.' As Bandurski has documented in recent months, 'we have seen much faster response on the part of the government, which has moved to release limited information quickly through official media.' So, is this a sign of a greater openness? "Far from it, he concludes. The state still vigorously controls information on political corruption and other sensitive issues, but, in the face of the information revolution, the government of Hu Jintao has taken a sharp turn toward, in Party-speak, 'grabbing the initiative' on the news." The Financial Times said: "Only hours after the weekend's bloody clashes in Urumqi and well before the authorities announced the horrendous death toll, Beijing had unequivocally named the perpetrators of the unrest in the capital of its northwestern region of Xinjiang. "Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, blamed what it called the 'pre-meditated and organised violence' on exiled leaders of the Uighurs, the predominant Muslim people in the region. "Xinhua, quoting an anonymous government official, singled out as the mastermind Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman who was jailed for alleged separatist activities in 1999 before being banished into exile in the US six years later. "The branding of the violence as foreign-instigated, with the aim of splitting the region off from China to form an independent state, has sinister echoes of Beijing's handling of rioting in Tibet early last year. " 'If it follows the Tibet pattern, at this stage the Chinese media will only release figures of those allegedly killed by protesters,' said Robert Barnett, a lecturer on Tibet at Columbia University in New York. 'We're seeing again the same news management method, which is to try and pre-empt foreign press reports by rapidly releasing news that is damaging to government critics, especially any images of violence by protesters and any evidence of foreign links.'" RFE/RL reported: "Current and former Uighur activists abroad have rejected Chinese accusations of involvement in [the rioting]... "Chinese officials blamed 'separatists' in the Xinjiang autonomous region and Uighur plotters abroad - including the World Uyghur Congress - for rioting that broke out on July 5 and quickly escalated before thousands of additional security troops were dispatched to get a handle on the unrest. "Uighur exiles countered that the unrest started after police opened fire on a peaceful protest. The exiles also said the riot was an outpouring of anger over government policies and Han Chinese dominance of economic opportunities." At The Huffington Post, Eric C Anderson noted: "The Bush administration's blind haste to launch a global war on terrorism provided Beijing with the ultimate excuse to crackdown on the Uighur. China's pledge of support for the US campaign was secured by having our State Department place an obscure Uighur group on the watch list of global terrorist organisations. In one fell swoop Washington blessed Han Chinese racism and granted Beijing a license to hunt Uighurs at will. "The results were predictable. Human Rights Watch reports Beijing has established 'a multi-tiered system of surveillance, control, and suppression of religious activity aimed at Xinjiang's Uighurs.' The group goes on to state, 'peaceful activists who practice their religion in a manner deemed unacceptable by state authorities or Chinese Communist Party officials are arrested, tortured, and at times executed.'"