URUMQI, China – Sobbing Muslim women scuffled with riot police, and Chinese men wielding steel pipes and meat cleavers rampaged through the streets as ethnic tensions worsened in China’s oil-rich Xinjiang territory, prompting President Hu Jintao to cut short a G8 summit trip today.
The new violence in Xinjiang’s capital erupted Tuesday 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 said more than 1,000 suspects had been rounded up since the spasm of attacks by Muslim Uighurs against Han Chinese, the ethnic majority.
In a rare move, Hu cut short a trip to Italy to take part in a Group of Eight meeting later today to travel home to deal with the outbreak of violence, the Foreign Ministry said on its Web site.
The chaos returned Tuesday 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.
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.
There was a heavy security presence in Urumqi this morning after an overnight curfew in the city of 2.3 million was lifted. Two helicopters flew over the city watching the scene.
The ugly scenes over the last several days highlight how far away the Communist Party is 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.
But 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, a Turkic-speaking group.
Many Uighurs believe the Han Chinese, who have flooded 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.