China Ethnic Unrest Kills 156

The death toll in the violence between predominantly Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese in western China is likely to increase, officials say. The clashes Sunday in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province, underscored the deep hostility between the Uighurs and China's Han majority. The violence killed 156 people.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Riot police are patrolling the streets of Urumqi, the capital of China's western most province. Yesterday, riots there left at least 156 dead and more than 800 injured, according to Chinese state-run media. The clashes pitted predominantly Muslim Uighur people, native to Xinjiang province, against Han Chinese. It's unclear at this point whether more casualties were suffered by Han Chinese or by Uighurs.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Joining us from Urumqi is NPR's Anthony Kuhn. Anthony, what's going on there today?

ANTHONY KUHN: Well Melissa, I've just back from walking through the Uighur quarters of the city for several hours. I've been to the Grand Bazaar in Xinjiang University and these neighborhoods now are cordoned off with riot police and armored vehicles around. A lot of Uighurs are standing in the streets and watching this going on very tensely. They're very afraid. But the government says it's got the situation pretty much under control and I think that if violence breaks out it will be in other places. We've heard unconfirmed reports that there may have been clashes in Kashgar, a city further to the west of Urumqi.

BLOCK: And what happened that precipitated this violence yesterday?

KUHN: There are drastically different explanations for the causes of last night's violence. What many Uighurs say is that they started off demonstrating over a previous fight on June 26th at a toy factory in southern China when Han Chinese and Uighurs went at it with knives and pipes. Two people were killed, dozens were injured. And the Uighurs say they were demonstrating because they were angry at the Han for attacking them and also they were angry at their own Uighur officials for not protecting their own people better. The government has a totally different explanation.

It says that the violence was the result of hostile foreign forces and separatist exile groups overseas trying to split China apart. They deny that any of the violence was related to the government's policies on minorities or religion. And essentially they are saying there is no need to discuss the issue of autonomy for minorities.

BLOCK: Well, what are some of those underlying tensions that you're alluding to there between Uighurs in this part of western China and Han Chinese?

KUHN: Well, there are great splits in how the two groups view the incident. The Han Chinese generally believe the government's explanation and the ones that do not believe it tend to be Uighurs. You also hear ugly stereotypes from many people you talk to. The Uighurs sometimes say the Han are arrogant, they are colonialist, they exploit Xinjiang province's resources and discriminate against the Uighurs. The Han sometimes say that the Uighurs are backward, dirty, lazy and ungrateful for the development that the Han Chinese have brought to Xinjiang province. That's the worst of the views, the better views are that the two sides have to peacefully coexist and that both groups oppose the killing of innocent civilians.

BLOCK: How much news is getting out about what happened over the weekend in Urumqi?

KUHN: The government is trying to get out some information quickly to preempt rumors on the Internet, right after the incident news came out of China very quickly on Twitter. But the following morning all Internet service in Urumqi was suspended. Some international phone links were cut and the city was very much cut off from the outside world.

BLOCK: Anthony, thank you very much.

KUHN: My pleasure, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn, speaking with us from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province in western China.

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