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Demonstrations between ethnic groups in China turned fatal, leaving at least 156 people dead and more than 1,000 injured.
The violence—including stabbings, beatings and burning people beyond recognition—centered in Urumqi, capital of the western Xinjiang province.
City residents in some neighborhood formed barricades to stop reprisals between the Han Chinese, China’s ethnic majority group, and the Uighur minority. Armed with sticks, shovels, pipes and meat cleavers, thousands of Han Chinese marched to the Uighur quarter to exact revenge. However, paramilitary troops fired tear gas at the mob, but not before the first wave got into a brick-throwing battle with Uighurs perched on rooftops (Associated Press).
“Muslim Uighurs, who make up less than half Xinjiang’s population of 20 million, complain of discrimination and unfair division of the region’s resources. The landlocked region, about three times the size of France, has China’s second-highest oil and natural gas reserves and was the biggest cotton producer” (Bloomberg).
The riots forced China’s President Hu Jintao to cut short a trip to Italy’s Group of Eight summit to resume government control of the situation.
Security force in full riot gear guarded a Uighur neighborhood, and “after two days of rioting left at least 156 people dead. The official toll makes the violence the most deadly in decades, possibly since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution” (ibid.). Law enforcement officers reportedly killed approximately 400 Uighur, according to The Wall Street Journal, and made mass arrests.
“The vast majority of Uighurs are Sunni Muslims, but the practice of Islam is tightly circumscribed. Government workers are not allowed to practice the religion. Imams cannot teach the Koran in private, and study of Arabic is allowed only at designated government schools. Two of Islam’s five pillars—the sacred fasting month of Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj—are also closely managed: students and government workers are compelled to eat during Ramadan, and passports of Uighurs have been confiscated to force them to join official hajj tours” (The New York Times).
Urumqi’s Communist Party chief said in a press conference that the government could sentence to death those responsible for killings. China’s chief police officer told state news agency Xinhua that rioters would not receive leniency.
Demonstrations initially started over the government’s handling of a fight in southern China between Uighur and Han factory workers.
Government authorities blamed international rights group World Uighur Congress for inciting the riots, accusing it of distorting the nation’s ethnic and religious policy. The government also blocked Internet access, blaming Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites for being the primary medium protestors used to communicate with each other to stir up violence.