Riots Force China's President To Miss G-8

China's President Hu Jintao has canceled plans to attend the G-8 summit in Italy, and instead has headed home to deal with mounting ethnic turmoil in the country's far west. The police and military presence was visibly beefed up after protests and vigilantism by ethnic Han Chinese in the Xinjiang territory on Tuesday.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week's meeting of Western industrial leaders was supposed to include the president of China - he was an invited guest. He headed home to deal with mounting ethnic turmoil in the western part of the country. In a moment, we'll hear more about the history of tensions in that part of China. We begin in the Chinese city of Urumqi, the scene of the violence for the past three days. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn.

(Soundbite of chanting)

ANTHONY KUHN: Columns of paramilitary troops and riot police march down main avenues today in a visible and audible show of force. The streets were more subdued after a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed last night. Citizens appeared to be carrying fewer weapons than yesterday, when fears of further unrest prompted them to take their safety into their own hands.

(Soundbite of fighting)

KUHN: On the last day of a government-mandated three-day holiday, many ethnic Uighars are staying in their own neighborhoods. Merchants hawk melons, grapes and nuts from wooden carts. Elderly men with white beards and skull caps sit outside their neighborhood mosques.

Most Uighars are too afraid to talk to reporters. One merchant, who would only give his first name, Mohammad, spoke in hushed tones inside his shop.

MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Many Uighars have been killed around here in the recent violence, he confides, and several hundred have been arrested by police.

China's government wants to be seen as being attentive to Uighar concerns. Today's state media reported that police arrested 15 suspects connected with an ethnic brawl last month at a toy factory in southern Guangdong province. The violence in Urumqi began on Sunday night with Uighar protests over that incident. State media have amplified the official message that the violence is the result of a plot by Uighar separatists who want an independent homeland.

Ethnic Han resident Wang Xichian(ph) says the earlier brawl in southern China has nothing to do with this week's street battles.

Mr. WANG XICHIAN: (Through translator) There is no solid connection between the two incidents. It's just this Rabiye Qadir(ph) using the Internet to inflame ethnic passions.

KUHN: Rabiye Qadir is a U.S.-based Uighar leader, whom the Chinese government says masterminded the recent violence. Wong Xi Xian(ph) agrees. After three days of violence, fear and arrests, many residents of all ethnicities are expressing feelings of emotional fatigue. Lee Ping(ph) is a Han resident who says she has many ethnic Uighar friends.

Ms. LEE PING: (Through translator) I haven't been in touch with my Uighar friends these days. We've all been immersed in this atmosphere of sadness. This incident won't affect our friendship but the emotional shock will take time to wear off.

KUHN: The Uighars are the majority in far-west Xinjiang Province, but they're just one of 13 ethnic groups, including Uzbek, Kazaks and Wey(ph), that form the region's colorful, social and cultural quilt, a quilt which has recently seemed in danger of coming apart at the seams.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Urumqi, China.

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