URUMQI, China — Chinese security forces clamped down on large parts of this city of 2.4 million Monday, a day after long-simmering ethnic tensions erupted in rioting that authorities said left 156 dead and more than 1,000 injured.
The fatalities, if confirmed, would represent one of the deadliest outbreaks of violence in China in decades.
The government said more than 20,000 security personnel were deployed in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region in northwestern China. Armored cars patrolled the city’s streets late Monday and squads of paramilitary People’s Armed Police marched through narrow alleyways where rioting had occurred. Tuesday morning, the security presence remained heavy, and work crews continued to clean debris from the streets, although traffic in parts of the city was beginning to recover.
Police have arrested 1,434 suspects in connection with the riot, the official Xinhua news agency reported. “The police have started interrogations with the suspects,” Xinhua quoted Li Yi, a spokesman for the Communist Party in Xinjiang, as saying. The violence grew out of protests by Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking and mainly Muslim ethnic group, against what they see as discrimination against them by the Han Chinese majority.
How Beijing acts in the days ahead could have major repercussions both at home and abroad, as China seeks a higher profile on the world stage. If its response is considered too heavy-handed by foreign governments, it could provoke international condemnation. But if Beijing doesn’t go far enough, it risks a domestic backlash from Han citizens. Chinese authorities appeared to move quickly to keep the unrest from spreading across Xinjiang, an oil-and-gas producing region that covers one-sixth of Chinese territory and shares borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Central Asian nations.
Residents said other large cities in the region had been blanketed by security forces. In the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, a group of Uighurs engaged in a shouting match with riot police outside a mosque before dispersing, witnesses said.
In Washington, a spokesman said the White House was “deeply concerned” about reports of the Xinjiang violence. Chinese President Hu Jintao was in Italy Monday, heading to the Group of Eight summit in L’Aquila, and he was expected to face questions about the incident.
The exact sequence of Sunday’s events couldn’t be determined from incomplete and, at times, conflicting accounts offered by people caught up in the violence.
An overseas umbrella group promoting Uighur rights, the World Uyghur Congress, said security forces used lethal force against protesters. Uighurs in Urumqi said they saw police shooting at Uighurs. Han witnesses said groups of Uighurs attacked Hans, set fire to buses and cars and smashed shop windows.
The authorities didn’t say how many of the dead and injured were Han, how many were Uighur and how many were from the security forces. The different views of the events from Uighurs and Han are likely to feed resentment. Chinese officials blamed the violence on the World Uyghur Congress, and its leader, Rebiya Kadeer. Ms. Kadeer said she had “no role in organizing or promoting these protests.”
An official in the nursing department of one of Urumqi’s largest hospitals, the Uyghur Autonomous Region People’s Hospital, said 291 people injured in the unrest were treated there, 233 of them Han, 39 Uighur and the rest from other minority ethnic groups. Seven had suffered gunshot wounds and 17 died, the official said.
China has struggled to keep the peace in its sensitive western border regions, where the government has tried to win over ethnic minorities with economic development while using a heavy hand to stamp out opposition to Beijing.
“There has been a substantial level of discontent” among Uighurs who feel they haven’t shared equally in China’s economic boom and chafe at political and religious restrictions, says Dru Gladney, a professor at Pomona College in California who studies the Uighurs. “Now it’s erupted.”
Sunday’s events echoed an apparently similar incident in Lhasa, in China’s Tibet region, in March last year, when the official death toll was 18. Uighurs share many of the same grievances as Tibetans, complaining of restrictions on their civil rights and religious practices, as well as economic and social discrimination by Han Chinese who have migrated to the country’s West in growing numbers.
Incomes in Xinjiang considerably lag the national average, and many Uighurs complain that Han get preferential treatment when looking for work. Many also fear that their culture, which is closely tied to that of Central Asia, is under threat as the government moves ahead with development plans.
Lately, Uighur exile groups have become more organized in challenging the Chinese government and giving voice to the frustrations of Uighurs unhappy with Beijing’s rule. Other Uighurs, seeking independence from China, have waged sporadic and sometimes violent campaigns against the government. One Uighur group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, has been labeled a terrorist organization by China and the U.S.
Unrest in Xinjiang mounted last year, and there were several violent incidents around the time of last summer’s Beijing Olympics.
Uighur activists Monday said hundreds of Uighurs, many of them students, had gathered Sunday to protest racial discrimination and to call for government action against Hans involved in a battle with Uighur migrant workers at a toy factory hundreds of miles away in southern China.
Two workers were killed and 60 injured in the toy factory incident, according to state media reports. The incident followed an allegation posted online by a former employee of the factory that Uighur men had raped two Han women. Police concluded the allegation was bogus and arrested the man who posted it, according to Xinhua.
Pictures said to be of the Urumqi protests distributed by the Washington-based Uyghur American Association showed young Uighurs marching with Chinese national flags. Ms. Kadeer said Monday that the situation turned violent after police beat demonstrators.
Chinese police said violence began at about 8 p.m. Sunday, an hour after hundreds of protestors gathered at the city’s People’s Square. Witnesses said rioters smashed shops and attacked buses.
One Han man, who moved to Urumqi two years ago from eastern China, said he hid in his market stall in the dark for hours on Sunday night while crowds rampaged outside. He said he could smell smoke and hear gunshots and explosions.
“We didn’t dare to make any sound,” he said.
Uighur security guards rescued two injured Han people from the street and pulled them to shelter in the market, he said. The two had been beaten and one was hit in the head with a brick.
Another Han man said he fled after seeing a group of young Uighur men chase down Han people on the street, pelting them with stones and stabbing them with knives.
“Uighur terrorists are killing Chinese people,” said another Han man, who said he was born in Xinjiang. “The police didn’t react quickly enough,” he said. “I am crying for justice.”
A Uighur man standing near Urumqi’s central bazaar said young Uighurs were angered by what happened at the toy factory in Guangdong, in southern China. When Han Chinese come to work in Xinjiang, “there is no problem,” he said. But he said, “We go to work in Guangdong and they beat us up….The young people just get fed up.”
According to a report Monday by the state-run Xinhua news agency, Liu Yaohua, a senior police official in Xinjiang, said rioters burned 261 vehicles, including 190 buses and two police cars, several of which were still ablaze Monday morning.
Internet users roundly condemned the violence. In one forum on the People’s Daily newspaper Web site, a user said “only the hardest crackdown can quiet the people’s anger.”
Another post called for an end to various government affirmative-action programs for minorities.
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based advocacy group, said the Chinese government had created a “pressure cooker” atmosphere for Uighurs in Xinjiang. “Any criticism is seen as undermining Chinese sovereignty,” he said. “People have no way to express their grievances.”
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A1