Authorities struggled to contain some of China’s worst ethnic violence in decades yesterday as gangs of Han Chinese defied a government crackdown and took to the streets seeking revenge against the Muslim Uighur minority.
The authorities had appeared to have the north-western city of Urumqi under control by yesterday morning, with shops opening and public transport running for the first time since riots on Sunday, in which officials say more than 150 people were killed.
But gangs of Han Chinese armed with sticks and bars started to form in the early afternoon and poured down two main streets towards the Great Bazaar, Urumqi’s traditional Uighur trading quarter.
Han Chinese, many of whom are angry at the failure of security forces to protect their community on Sunday, later cheered on riot police when they intervened to separate them from Uighurs with whom they were fighting.
Beijing has battled against a low-level insurgency in the region of Xinjiang for decades, but unrest has grown in recent years as many Uighurs began to feel left behind by rapid economic growth that benefits mainly members of China’s dominant Han ethnic group who have moved there.
The Xinjiang riots are of deep concern to Beijing, as they could trigger unrest among other minority groups with complaints similar to those of the Uighurs. Protests spread to the Uighur-majority oasis town of Kashgar yesterday, the state news agency Xinhua reported.
China’s leaders, including Hu Jintao, the president, who is in Italy to attend the Group of Eight summit, have yet to comment directly on the unrest. But officials have sought to blame Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uighur leader, and others for the violence.
Ms Kadeer dismissed Beijing’s charges in a BBC interview yesterday.
China’s embassy in the Netherlands was attacked by exiled pro-Uighur activists who threw rocks that smashed windows, and two men threw Molotov cocktails at a Munich consulate, a foreign ministry spokesman said.
Sunday’s protests were sparked by the deaths of two Uighurs in clashes with Han Chinese at a toy factory near Hong Kong late last month.
The Communist party secretary of Xinjiang, Wang Lequan, who is under intense pressure from Beijing to bring the volatile situation under control, pleaded to Han Chinese not to take the law into their own hands. “Some Han people took to the streets in Urumqi today, disrupting social orders. This is not necessary at all,” he said.
Li Zhi, the Communist party chief in Urumqi city, said the authorities had arrested more than 1,400 suspects allegedly involved in the Sunday riots.
Uighur women also took to the streets yesterday to protest against the arrest of their husbands and sons. “My husband was detained at gunpoint. They were hitting people, they were stripping people naked. My husband was scared so he locked the door, but the police broke down the door and took him away,” a woman, who gave her name as Aynir told the Associated Press. She said about 300 people were arrested in the market in the southern section of town.
Mr Li said the men arrested had all been caught red-handed. “We caught them in the act of beating, smashing, robbing, burning and killing. We dragged them out from under beds still with clubs in their hands,” he said.
The Uighurs, who comprise just under half the region’s population, had long complained at Communist rule in Xinjiang, saying that officials restrict religious worship, stifle their culture and keep most of the economic benefits in the region’s oil and natural gas reserves for their own community.
Xinjiang has seen waves of Han immigration for decades. According to the official point of view, which is shared by most Han Chinese, that is only positive. Anyone who rejects it is viewed as a separatist.
For Urumqi’s angry Han, however, passions are boiling over. At sunset, with just half an hour to go to the 9pm curfew, ever larger groups of stick- and knife-wielding young men came marching south from all over Urumqi. Police, soldiers and the fire brigade erected several roadblocks, but crowds soon regrouped.
A young man who had been stopped at an army barricade on a bridge flew into a rage.
“Soldiers, you must treat the people well, for it is the people who feed you!” he screamed, waving his stick at a trooper guarding Urumqi’s military headquarters.