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Xinjiang: A Challenge to Hu Jintao

Less than a month before the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, President Hu Jintao and the Chinese Communist Party face a serious challenge to their authority from the Uighurs as well as the Hans of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

2. The repressive measures taken by the local authorities of the province against the Uighurs following the disturbances of July 5/6,2009, at Urumqi in which 197 persons—the majority of them Han Chinese—were killed, have not brought the situation totally under control. After a lull of about six weeks, large numbers of Uighurs—including some women— reportedly motivated by the pro-Al Qaeda Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan (IMET) have again succeeded in creating a growing feeling of insecurity among the Hans by organising a large number of stabbing incidents with hypodermic syringe needles on Hans —including children— in public places. These attacks started on August 17,2009, and are continuing during the present holy fasting period of Ramadan.

3. There have been over 470 reports of such attacks, but only about 80 of them have reportedly been confirmed by doctors who did a physical examination of the complainants. The large number of confirmed attacks indicates that a number of Uighurs have been operating autonomously of each other, but their actions are being co-ordinated by a common command and control. The much larger number of unconfirmed cases speak of the panic prevailing in the Han population. This panic is making many believe that they have been stabbed by a passer-by with a syringe needle. Despite the arrests of a number of suspects—including one or two allegedly caught red-handed while stabbing Hans with needles—- the local police have not been able to establish who is behind this wave of strikes and identify and arrrest their ring leaders.

4. The ineffectiveness of the police in dealing with the situation has led to a recrudescence of the anger of the Han residents of Urumqi. This is similar to the anger witnessed after the violent disturbances of July when thousands of Hans protested in the streets against the inefficiency of the police. Unnerved by this anger, President Hu Jintao, who was then in Italy to attend the G-8 summit, cancelled his participation in the summit and flew back to Beijing to order the despatch of Army and People’s Armed Police reinforcements to Xinjiang in his capacity as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission. This led to the Han anger subsiding.

5. The expectations of the Hans that an enquiry will be held to establish responsibility for the acts of negligence which led to the July disturbances and take action against those found negligent have been belied. On the contrary, during his visit to Xinjiang last month President Hu Jintao extended his backing to the local Government and party leaders for the way they had handled the situation.

6.The wave of needle stabbings and the failure of the local police to stop this and identify and arrest those responsible have led to a fresh eruption of anger among the Hans. They have been demonstrating in the streets of Urumqi since September 2. The demonstrations started on a small scale on September 2. Thousands joined the demonstrations the next day, but they obeyed the instructions of the local officials and dispersed peacefully without creating any incident.

7. On the night of September 3, the authorities imposed an undeclared curfew by banning vehicular movements and gatherings of people on the main roads under the guise of regulating traffic.They also inducted a large number of People’s Armed Police units from outside Urumqi who took up positions at sensitive points of the city and outside main government and party offices. They ordered the closure of all educational institutions on September 4 and the local mosques to cancel their Ramadan Friday prayers. Police vans fittled with public address systems moved around the city appealing to the people to stay in their houses.

8. Despite this, hundreds of Han residents of the city started coming into the streets around mid-day in different parts of the city to demonstrate against the failure of the authorities to protect the lives and property of the Hans. Apparently afraid of a 1989 Tianenmen Square type of incident, the authorities have banned the people from gathering in the main square of the city. When a crowd of about 1000 young Hans tried to defy this ban, the People’s Armed Police units dispersed them ny using tear-smoke.

9. According to reports from reliable sources, for the first time since the protests began on September 2 slogans are being shouted demanding the sacking of Wang Lequan, the head of the Communist Party of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, who is considered a protege of President Hu. There were no slogans against Hu, but if Beijing continues to back Wang there is a danger of the Han anger turning against Hu himself and the Central Government and party leaders.

10. The situation in Urumqi is increasingly delicate for the Central Government and party. ( 4-9-09)

( The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: seventyone2@gmail.com )

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