Chinese Criticize Government's Handling Of Unrest

It's been more than two months since ethnic riots killed hundreds in Northwest China. And while the street clashes have subsided, tensions among ethnic groups remain high. There also is anger at the government's handling of the conflict.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's stay in Asia for our next story. A couple of months ago we reported on ethnic riots in northwest China that left hundreds of people dead. Those large-scale clashes involved the Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese. They have subsided, but there are still attacks taking place on the street. And the new weapon of choice is a syringe.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

ANTHONY KUHN: As this story was reported on Xinjiang provincial television this week, four ethnic Uighurs sidled up to a woman in the regional capital of Urumqi and jabbed her in the neck with a syringe. State media have reported some 600 syringe attacks, mostly against the majority Han population. But only around 170 victims had visible wounds. The official Xinhua news agency said that some of the wounds may actually have been mosquito bites.

Just after the reported stabbing, Kainam Japar(ph), a Uighur photojournalist with the Xinjiang legal news went out to the buy some flatbread. He came upon an angry crowd of what he said were several thousand ethnic Han Chinese.

Mr. KAINAM JAPAR (Photojournalist): (Through translator) They had surrounded a Uighur man and woman and were shouting, beat them to death. The crowd suspected the couple had attacked people with needles. At first, paramilitary police surrounded the couple, but they, too, became trapped by the crowd.

KUHN: Japar says he sought refuge in a gated apartment complex.

Mr. JAPAR: (Through Translator) I was pursued by about a hundred people. One of the complex' security guards tried to protect me while the others tried to shut the gate, but he couldn't close it in time and 40 or 50 people charged in. They beat me senseless.

KUHN: State television has showed some of the thousands of officials going door-to-door to reassure jittery Urumqi residents.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language)

KUHN: Don't be afraid or nervous, one official tells a young ethnic Han migrant woman. We have lots of cadres going into the communities to maintain stability. Trust the party and government, okay? This difficult situation will change quickly.

Last week's Han protestors not only demanded law and order, they slammed local government incompetence and demanded the ouster of Xinjiang's Communist Party Secretary Wang Lequan. Instead, Urumqi's party chief and Xinjiang's police chief were sacked without any explanation.

Independent analyst Wu Jaxiang(ph) notes that some Han protestors pined for the days of Wang Zhen, Xinjiang iron-fisted first Communist ruler.

Mr. WU JAXIANG: (Through Translator) To the Uighurs, Wang Zhen was demon. As far as they were concerned, at least during the initial period after 1949, Wang's only policy was military suppression.

KUHN: Wu holds out hope that the unrest in Xinjiang could push Beijing towards reform as long as it's not worried about Xinjiang breaking away from China.

Mr. JAXIANG: (Through Translator) If we can reach a consensus on this with Xinjiang's minorities, than there could be a moment not towards independence, but towards autonomy. China's political reforms could develop in the direction of federalism, just like America.

KUHN: For now, Chinese government considers federalism anathema. With the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic coming up, Beijing is busy proclaiming its minority policies a success.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: Mongolian musicians perform at an exhibition here, showcasing the natural beauty and economic development of China's minority regions. In the Xinjiang exhibit, Uighur researcher Abi Beulah Abdul Salam(ph) of the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences says last week's protest in Urumqi were not surprising.

Mr. ABI BEULAH ABDUL SALAM (Researcher, Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences): (Through translator) We're a country ruled by law. Our law will not let bad guys escape or good folks be wronged. But this requires a process, and some citizens may express dissatisfaction with it. This happens in every country, not just China.

KUHN: Analyst Wu Jaxiang agrees that aside from the ethnic angle, the unrest is Xinjiang is little different from other riots that erupt China wherever the government infringes on citizen's rights. But he predicts that Xinjiang's strategic position in Central Asia and the Islamic world will make that unrest much harder to tame.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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