URUMQI, China – Sobbing Muslim women scuffled with riot police, and Chinese men wielding steel pipes, meat cleavers and sticks rampaged through the streets Tuesday as ethnic tensions worsened in China’s oil-rich Xinjiang territory, forcing officials to declare a curfew.
The new violence in Xinjiang’s capital erupted only a few hours after the city’s top officials told reporters the streets in Urumqi were returning to normal following a riot that killed 156 people Sunday. The officials also said more than 1,000 suspects had been rounded up since the spasm of attacks by Muslim Uighurs against Han Chinese, the ethnic majority.
The chaos returned when hundreds of young Han men seeking revenge began gathering on sidewalks with kitchen knives, clubs, shovels and wooden poles. They spent most of the afternoon marching through the streets, smashing windows of Muslim restaurants and trying to push past police cordons protecting minority neighborhoods. Riot police successfully fought them back with volleys of tear gas and a massive show of force.
At one point, the mob chased a boy who looked like he was a Uighur. The youth, who appeared to be about 12, climbed a tree, and the crowd tried to whack his legs with their sticks as the terrified boy cried. He was eventually allowed to leave unharmed as the rioters ran off to focus on another target.
After the crowds thinned out, a curfew was announced from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. Police cars cruised the streets in the evening, telling people to go home, and they complied.
The ugly scenes earlier in the day highlighted how far away the Communist Party was from one of its top goals: creating a “harmonious society.” The unrest was also an embarrassment for the Chinese leadership, which is getting ready to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Communist rule and wants to show it has created a stable country.
Harmony has been hard to achieve in Xinjiang, a rugged region three times the size of Texas with deserts, mountains and the promise of huge oil and natural gas reserves. Xinjiang is also the homeland for 9 million Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers), a Turkic-speaking group.
Many Uighurs believe the Han Chinese, who have been flooding into the region in recent years, are trying to crowd them out. They often accuse the Han of prejudice and waging campaigns to restrict their religion and culture.
The Han Chinese allege the Uighurs are backward and ungrateful for all the economic development and modernization the Han have brought to Xinjiang. They also complain that the Uighurs’ religion — a moderate form of Sunni Islam — keeps them from blending into Chinese society, which is officially communist and largely secular.
“We have been good to them. We take good care of them,” said Liu Qiang, a middle-aged Han Chinese businessman who joined the marchers. “But the Uighurs are stupid. They think we have more money than they do because we’re unfair to them.”
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called the violence a “major tragedy.”
“I urge Uighur and Han civic leaders, and the Chinese authorities at all levels, to exercise great restraint so as not to spark further violence and loss of life,” she said.
In other violence Tuesday, witnesses said groups of about 10 Uighur men with bricks and knives attacked Han Chinese passers-by and shop-owners outside the city’s southern railway station, until police ran them off, witnesses said.
“Whenever the rioters saw someone on the street, they would ask ‘Are you a Uighur?’ If they kept silent or couldn’t answer in the Uighur language, they would get beaten or killed,” said a restaurant worker near the station, who only gave his surname, Ma.
It was not immediately clear if anyone was killed in those reported attacks.
The authorities have been trying to control the unrest by blocking the Internet and limiting access to texting services on cell phones. At the same time, police have generally been allowing foreign media to cover the tensions.
On Tuesday, officials arranged a tour for journalists of sites that were attacked by Uighur rioters on Sunday. But the public relations event backfired spectacularly during the tour’s first stop — a car dealership in southern Urumqi where several autos were burned by rioters.
After interviewing people at the business, the journalists crossed the road to a Uighur market, where angry women in traditional, brightly colored headscarves began to gather.
One woman who gave her name as Aynir said police arrived Monday evening and arrested about 300 men. The authorities were looking for men with fresh wounds or other signs they joined the rioting.
“My husband was detained at gunpoint. They were hitting people. They were stripping people naked. My husband was scared so he locked the door, but the police broke down the door and took him away,” Aynir said. “He had nothing to do with the riots.”
The crowd of women swelled to about 200 and they began marching in the street, chanting, “Freedom!” and “Release our children!” They were quickly sandwiched by hundreds of police on both ends of the road, along with trucks with water cannons. Some women screamed at the security forces and jostled the men, who were armed with assault rifles, tear gas guns, shields and sticks. The crowd dispersed after a standoff that lasted 90 minutes.
Uighurs have said this week’s rioting was triggered by the June 25 deaths of Uighur factory workers killed in a brawl in the southern Chinese city of Shaoguan. State-run media have said two workers died, but many Uighurs believe more were killed and said the incident was an example of how little the government cared about them.
In the days that followed, graphic photos spread on the Internet purportedly showing at least a half-dozen bodies of Uighurs, with Han Chinese standing over them, arms raised in victory. Expunged from some sites, the photos were posted and reposted, some on overseas servers beyond the reach of censors.
In a sign the government was trying to address communal grievances, the official Xinhua News Agency said Tuesday that 13 people had been arrested in the factory fight, including three from Xinjiang. Two others were arrested for spreading rumors on the Internet that Xinjiang employees had raped two female workers, the report said, citing a local police official.
Chinese officials have largely dismissed claims that the Urumqi rioting was caused by long-simmering resentments among the Uighurs. They said the crowds were stirred up by U.S.-exiled Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer and her overseas followers, who used the Internet to spread rumors.
“Using violence, making rumors, and distorting facts are what cowards do because they are afraid to see social stability and ethnic solidarity in Xinjiang,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in Beijing during a blistering verbal attack on Kadeer, who has denied the allegations.
Li Zhi, Urumqi’s highest-ranking Communist Party official, also railed against Kadeer as he addressed the angry Han mobs. Standing on an armored police vehicle, Li pumped his fist as he shouted through a megaphone, “Strike down Rebiya!”