Less than two weeks after President Hu Jintao made a visit to Xinjiang urging the region’s leaders to focus on ethnic and social stability, unrest broke out in the capital Urumqi. Thousands of angry people, mostly ethnic Han Chinese, were once again back in the city’s People’s Square, this time protesting a rash of stabbings with syringes in the city.
By September 4, 531 people had sought medical attention for suspected syringe stabbings and doctors were able to find obvious wounds in 171 cases. Despite rumors to the contrary, none of the victims were infected with any viruses – there had been fears of HIV-contaminated needles – radioactive substances or toxic chemicals, according to China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences.
The region’s government blamed the stabbings on separatist Uighur groups trying to stir up ethnic divisions. But the crowd in People’s Square directed its anger in another direction: They blamed Wang Lequan, Xinjiang’s Communist Party secretary, for not ensuring better public safety, and called for his dismissal.
While the protests did not lead to a riot on the scale of the July incident – although there were five deaths – they were a stark illustration of just how polarized relations between Hans and Uighurs have become. Beijing, concerned about social stability in the run up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China this month, responded by ordering the dismissal of Li Zhi, secretary of the Urumqi Communist Party committee, and Liu Yaohua, Xinjiang’s regional police chief. The sackings were largely seen as an attempt to restore faith among Xinjiang’s Han population in the Communist Party leadership.
The local authorities also instigated a public security crackdown. Paramilitary troops flooded into the city, standing guard at major intersections and blocking off entrances to Uighur neighborhoods to prevent outbreaks of Han vigilantism like those that followed the July riots.
As of mid-September, 75 people had been detained on suspicion of being involved in the stabbings, and three Uighurs received jail terms of 15, 10 and seven years, respectively. One defendant was accused of using a pin to jab a woman while she bought fruit at a roadside stall. The other two were convicted of robbery, having used a syringe to threaten and then rob a taxi driver.
The instability in Xinjiang has economic as well as political ramifications. State media reported that tourist groups were canceling trips to the region and visitor numbers at popular tourist sites had fallen from thousands per day to just hundreds. Many businesses in Urumqi remain closed over fears of continuing unrest.
As for media coverage, the relatively open stance that Beijing adopted during the July riots has been short lived: Military police detained and beat three Hong Kong television reporters who were covering the September protests. The ethnic tensions at the heart of the two incidents may be largely the same, but public dissatisfaction with a senior party official is a message the leadership doesn’t want to disseminate.