BEIJING // Ethnic violence in China's restive Xinjiang province left at least 156 people dead and more than 800 wounded, state media reported yesterday, which if confirmed marks the bloodiest social unrest in China since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The death toll jumped dramatically yesterday when state media reported that clashes on Sunday between the minority Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese in the provincial capital, Urumchi, escalated into riots yesterday.
The state-run CCTV broadcast images of burnt-out buildings and buses, and Uighur rioters trashing police cars, against a background of flames and bloodied victims of the unrest. Witness accounts say as many as 3,000 rioters took to the streets on Sunday pitted against 1,000 riot police. State media reports said the majority of those killed were Han Chinese, whose population has grown in Xinjiang in recent years brought about by the resource-rich region's economic success and government-encouraged migration to the region.
CCTV also reported that one police officer was killed. It remains unclear how the riots began. Beijing maintains that Uighur students went on the rampage, overturning vehicles and setting buildings ablaze, while exiled representatives from international Uighur groups claim police opened fired on a peaceful protest. Human right groups have said it is likely that the protests were over fights between groups of Uighurs and Han Chinese in southern China last month, where two Uighur employees were killed and 188 wounded in a clash with Han Chinese workers.
Thousands of riot police took to the streets of Urumchi yesterday to contain the violence, arresting hundreds of suspected instigators and setting up checkpoints to stop fleeing rioters, the Associated Press reported. The death toll jumped from three dead in the early hours of yesterday to 156 dead and 828 wounded, when Xinhua, the official news agency, published an updated report in the afternoon. It is expected that the toll will continue to rise. The accuracy of the figures has been questioned at a time when media and the internet have been disrupted - by the government, many believe - in the region, restricting the flow of information.
"The unrest is a pre-empted, organised violent crime. It is instigated and directed from abroad, and carried out by outlaws in the country," a government statement said yesterday. Government officials have accused the World Uighur Congress (WUC), led by Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman living in exile in the United States, for "masterminding" the unrest. The WUC has refuted the allegations, saying it had become "common practice" for the Chinese government to accuse Ms Kadeer for any unrest in what the group calls East Turkestan, in the same way Chinese authorities deal with the Dalai Lama over the issue of Tibet.
The internet and several telephone operators were reported blocked. Even some reporters for state-run outlets have been unable to contact their desks, one editor from an official newspaper said. Xinjiang's police chief, Liu Yaohua, seemed to admit that at least some media had been blocked, in remarks carried by Xinhua: "Police have tightened security in downtown Urumqi streets and at key institutions such as power and natural gas companies and TV stations to prevent large-scale riots."
"This afternoon my family called me and talked about what happened," said Ka Xi Mu, a 24-year-old Uighur based in Beijing. He said he suspected the phone conversation was being monitored. "I don't think that the riots were started because of religion or politics," he said. "They are just exaggerated. Maybe some people are unhappy with some of the policy from the central government. But maybe some of the policy is not so good."
The Xinjiang riots echo the Tibetan uprising in March last year. The media lockdown on the area has prevented the real numbers of those detained and charged from being revealed. "What we learnt from the Tibet situation last year was that the crackdown from authorities was swift and involved the arrest of scores of individuals. Unfortunately, we still are not able to account for all those detained and or missing," said Roseann Rife, deputy programme director for Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific office.
"I understand that there are some local authorities claiming that this was instigated by outside organisers. It is an attempt to put it in the wider context of the war on terror. We have documented examples of authorities using the pretext of terrorism to crack down on peaceful expressions of Uighurs dissent. This was not peaceful but its an easy way for a swift crack down," Ms Rife added. Analysts say China has implemented a change in policy towards Xinjian and Tibet since the September 11 attacks in the United States. Keen to gain sympathy from the international community, they say, authorities want to link social unrest with acts of terrorism and calls for independence, to justify brutal crackdowns while playing down the underlying ethnic, economic and religious tensions.
In Beijing, news of the riots were dismissed as calls for independence. "Xinjiang is part of China; it's just the culture is different," said Zhou Shu Zen, a 34-year-old shop assistant, reading the story on the internet in her shop, and agreeing with the government line. "They are not in the position to talk about racism or prejudice. They want to show that there are shiny, happy people living together. Even if they wanted to, they couldn't talk about racial understanding or harmony," one online commentator, David Lyons, said.
Riots in Xinjiang are rare in part because of the heavy police presence. But tensions have been high in recent years. Days before the Beijing Olympics, two ethnic Uighurs drove a lorry loaded with explosives into a Chinese police base in the western city of Kashgar, killing 16 armed police patrolling the border. The pair were later executed. Human right groups say the main reason China's Uighurs want an independent state in Xinjiang is because they have seen little of the benefits of the country's economic development and resent Han Chinese economic dominance.
* The National