Urumqi, the troubled capital of China’s north-western Xianjiang province, is under lock-down today. It has been the scene of serious civil unrest since the weekend with the ethnic minority Uighurs pitting themselves against the Han Chinese in a series of violent street battles. The local Muslim Uighur population have long complained of discrimination by the Han Chinese who have been steadily moving into the region since the 1940s. The Uighurs say the Han, immigrants from other parts of China and the largest ethnic group in the country, are attacking their identity, religious beliefs and also taking all the best jobs and opportunities away from them. In short, treating them like second class citizens in their own home.
This region is of particular interest to China’s central government as it is rich in resources in particular natural gas. The tense situation there has caused such concern that President Hu Jintao has left the G8 summit in Italy early. Like last year’s protests in Tibet any uprising that could unravel the patchwork that holds China’s various ethnic communities together is treated with utmost severity – Urumqi’s Communist Party boss today threatened the riots’ ringleaders with execution. So far over a hundred and fifty people have died and the Chinese government yesterday ordered the town to be placed under curfew. Today the streets are swarming with troops and police.
ABC News’ producer Beth Loyd is there and described the scene:
Tens of thousands of troops and police have swarmed the streets of downtown Urumqi and made a perimeter around the mostly Uighur neighborhood to prevent the Uighurs from getting out and the Han Chinese from getting it. But that has not quelled the violence. We were driving to the Uighur area and encountered an angry mob. Thirty Han Chinese men were beating a Uighur man, kicking him and punching him and hitting him with sticks. He was not fighting back but just trying to get away. Hundreds of Han Chinese were cheering the men on. Eventually, the police dragged the Uighur away and put him in a vehicle for his protection. Then, the mob turned on us. They blocked our cameras, not wanting the images of Han Chinese beating a Uighur to get out. I was pushed. Then the group surrounded us and started yelling. They pushed us back up a highway ramp where we were shooting. They yelled that western journalists were biased against the Han Chinese and that we should delete our footage. One man tried to grab our camera and then pulled out a baton and held it over his head as if he were going to hit us. We turned around and ran. The oddest part of the whole experience was that there were swarms of police and troops around and none of them were really trying to break up the fight.
We finally made it inside the Uighur area and spoke to several people there who were afraid to have their faces shown on television, out of fear or reprisals by the authorities. The police stopped us several times and eventually forced us to leave the Uighur area.
The Communist Party Chief of Urumqi today said the situation is calm and under control. The scenes we saw today don’t support that conclusion.