The Chinese government’s intent to restore order in Urumqi was made clear by the heavy paramilitary presence that descended on Xinjiang’s capital in the days after July 5, when ethnic violence killed at least 197 people and injured more than 1,700 in the city. Thousands of police and paramilitary troops were sent to ensure calm and order, separating Han and Uighur groups. President Hu Jintao saw the incident as serious enough to warrant an early exit from the G8 summit in Rome.
The spark for the violence had been the killing of migrant Uighur workers at a factory in southern China, though it also reflected long-standing tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang. Many Uighurs accuse Beijing of discriminatory policies, while many Han argue that Uighurs unfairly enjoy preferential treatment. Although Xinjiang as a whole is mostly Uighur, Urumqi is Han-dominated.
Beijing moved quickly to place the blame for the riots on the shoulders of Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress. Kadeer denied the charges.
Exactly when the demonstration in Urumqi against the Guangdong killings turned violent remains unclear. Initial foreign reports that Uighurs were the hardest hit by the riots proved unfounded – most of the killed and injured were Han, though retaliatory attacks by Han Chinese targeted Uighurs.
The speed at which those reports were corrected reflected a willingness, in contrast with last year’s riots in Tibet, to allow foreign journalists to report on conditions in the city. This occasionally backfired, as when a government-led media tour encountered a group of female Uighur protestors, but the net effect was to defuse international criticism of Beijing’s response.
Other lines of communication were quickly restricted. Mobile phones were temporarily blocked in Urumqi, and the microblogging website Twitter was and continues to be blocked across the country. Also inaccessible is social networking site Facebook, which Beijing said had been used by Uighur separatist groups.
Conscious of the explosive nature of ethnic strife, the government was careful to present the riots as the actions of a criminal minority of terrorists and splittists, and has promised harsh retribution. But it also said some university students had been "misled"into rioting, and would be treated more leniently.
Despite the return of relative calm to the city, an incident in which Chinese police fatally shot two Uighur men and wounded a third more than a week after the initial riots showed that tensions had not entirely dissipated.
In addition, while the government’s response to the riots was rapid and effective – and its relative openness in allowing foreign media coverage was encouraging – it did little to address the grievances at the core of the violence. An order to close mosques for Friday prayer, while rescinded in part, demonstrated Beijing’s insistence on treating the riots as purely a law-and-order issue.
In not addressing the fundamental tension, Beijing may have sown the seeds for future unrest.