Protests by thousands of Han Chinese in the last two days have led to renewed unrest in China’s Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang, exactly two months after mass ethnic riots broke out in the region.
Tens of thousands took to the streets of Urumqi, region’s capital, on Thursday and Friday demanding greater safety following a spate of syringe stabbing attacks in the city. State-run Xinhua news agency said the police fired tear gas at protesters when thousands confronted the police near the city headquarters of China’s ruling Communist Party. The unrest comes at a sensitive time for Beijing, which is preparing to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1.
Officials said more than 500 people in Urumqi have in the last two weeks been attacked with syringes. Rumours in the city suggesting the needles were infected with HIV led to mass panic, but authorities said on Friday none of those admitted for treatment was found to be infected. Of the 531 people who had received treatment, most were Han Chinese, China’s majority ethnic group, indicating the attacks may have been racially motivated.
Xinjiang has seen intermittent tension between native Uighurs and Han Chinese which flared into mass riots on July 5, killing at least 197 people and injuring more than 1,600. The Uighurs, an ethnic Turkic-speaking Muslim group, is the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang but one of 55 minority groups in China.
Tens of thousands of Han Chinese began protesting on Thursday calling for better public safety. Hundreds of armed police were deployed in the city’s public squares over Thursday night as authorities moved to prevent a repeat of July’s riots. The heavy police presence, however, did not keep protesters away on Friday, with thousands reportedly marching on government offices demanding action.
The protesters have called for resignation of Xinjiang’s controversial Communist Party leader Wang Lequan. Mr. Wang, who is known for his hard-line policies and is a close ally of President Hu Jintao, has been serving as the regional secretary of the Communist Party in Xinjiang since 1994. He has been criticised by Uighur groups for policies that they say have led to increasing migration by Han Chinese into Xinjiang and rising disparities between the two groups. Following the July 5 riots, his administration has also come under severe criticism from Han Chinese, who say the government was too slow to protect residents from the violence unleashed by mobs.
Officials said relative calm was restored to Urumqi by Friday evening, though restrictions on traffic and bans on public gatherings remained in place. The Associated Press reported that shops and offices remained closed, while police patrols roamed the city’s streets and public squares, playing a recorded message. It said, “Disperse. Don’t stay here. Think of the nation.”