Beijing scrambles to find scapegoats By Wu Zhong, China Editor
HONG KONG - In need of a scapegoat over
massive protests by the Han Chinese community in Urumqi, Xinjiang province,
against a string of bizarre syringe attacks supposedly orchestrated by Uyghur
separatists, the government at the weekend sacked Li Zhi, Urumqi's Communist
Li, a vice-ministerial-level official, became the first
Chinese official to fall victim to new government regulations that hold local
officials accountable for "mass incidents" - the official term for mass
demonstrations - which came into effect in mid-July.
Li, 59, may have
taken a fall to quell growing public anger, particularly among Han residents,
over worsening public security in the region. But the main target of criticism
from the Han
protesters is Wang Lequan, the party secretary of Xinjiang since 1995.
Analysts agree that Li's removal will secure the position of Wang, also
a politburo member and reportedly a protege of President Hu Jintao, for the near
future - unless the situation in Xinjiang gets too out of control.
eruption of massive street protests in Urumqi last week was a major
embarrassment for the central government and Hu personally, especially as
Beijing is preparing grand celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the founding
of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on October 1.
The ongoing unrest
in Xinjiang makes it harder for Beijing to boast solidarity and the harmonious
co-existence of ethnic groups as being among the major achievements of communist
rule over the past six decades.
Hu paid a four-day visit to Xinjiang
from August 22 to 25 to inspect the situation in the aftermath of July 5
violence in Urumqi that left 197 people dead and another 1,600 injured.
In Chinese tradition, when violent unrest occurs in an ethnic-minority
region, the supreme Chinese leader - traditionally the emperor - would not
inspect the area unless he was assured that order had been restored and that the
situation was fully under control.
Similarly, it seems that Hu was
assured that the ethnic conflict in Xinjiang was a closed chapter. During his
inspection trip, the president expressed gratitude to the armed forces and the
police for "ending the violence of the July 5 riot in Urumqi", according to the
state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Indeed, both before and during Hu's
Xinjiang visit, Xinjiang and Urumqi officials had stressed that "life was
becoming normal" and that tourists were again visiting Urumqi.
Thursday, tens of thousands of angry Urumqi residents, mostly ethnic Han, took
to the streets in protest against the government's failure to stop hypodermic
syringe attacks on Han pedestrians, allegedly by Uyghurs.
residents feared the syringes contained poison, or blood from HIV/AIDS-infected
patients. Such attacks have previously been reported in the country.
Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu, who flew to Urumqi at dawn on
Friday to personally oversee the handling of the incident, said the fresh unrest
was a continuation of the July 5 incident. He blamed "overseas separatists" for
attempting to further instigate hatred and conflict between the Han and Uyghur
But the September 3 protests were most likely prompted by
the government's inaction over initial reports of syringe attacks. Some
protesters told Hong Kong media that as early as August 17, Han Chinese had
complained to local police of syringe stabbings, allegedly by Uyghurs. These
were said to have continued "almost every day" since then - even during Hu's
visit, and Urumqi police now admit that attacks had taken place since August 17.
Police inaction could be explained by a mistaken belief that the
incidents were isolated. However, it is more likely that the authorities were
afraid to launch high-profile searches that could have intensified ethnic
conflict and made a mockery of claims that law and order had been restored.
But the inaction led Han residents, who account for 75% of Urumqi's 2.3
million population, to take matters into their own hands by staging protests,
with the first major demonstration taking place last Thursday. According to
Xinhua, these protests were attended by "tens of thousands of people" and they
"crippled city traffic and forced shops in major commercial streets to shut".
Syringe stabbings occurred even during the protests and one attacker was
caught at the scene, Xinhua said, with only police intervention saving her from
being lynched. Armed police prevented the crowd from going to Uyghurs areas, but
five people were killed and more than a dozen injured during the September 3
protests, Xinhua reported.
Both Wang Lequan and Li Zhi made public
appearances on different occasions during the protests. "Wang Lequan, step
down!" the protesters shouted. On Hong Kong television, some protestors were
seen throwing plastic bottles at him. "This government is unable to protect
people's lives. It must be changed," one protester said.
are not happy with Wang, whom they accuse of mishandling the July 5 incident.
(See 'King of
Xinjiang' faces blame for riots, July 16, 2009, Asia Times Online) In
Washington, exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer has also called on Wang to step
down, blaming him for intensifying ethnic conflict in Xinjiang. For once, the
Han and Uyghur ethnic groups in Xinjiang seem to have some common ground.
Wang, however, will likely remain in his post. He is a politburo member
and "there is no precedent of a politburo member being sacked for his mistakes",
according to a sociology researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
(CASS) in Beijing.
Two former politburo members, ex-Beijing party chief
Chen Xitong and ex-Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu have previously been jailed
over corruption, but only as a result of power struggles. If Wang were to be
replaced, Beijing would have to find someone suitably experienced in handling
"At this stage, dismissing Li Zhi is the proper move. The
current unrest has only [occurred] in Urumqi, and as party chief of the city, Li
certainly is the first person to blame. But if the whole situation in Xinjiang
gets out of control, then Wang cannot shirk his responsibility," said the CASS
Li's dismissal was announced on Saturday, and he was
immediately replaced by Zhu Hailun, 51, the secretary of the CPC's Xinjiang
Committee of Political and Legal Affairs. Zhu commands all law-enforcement
forces in the region and this replacement shows that Beijing places top priority
on restoring law and order in Urumqi.
Xinjiang's police chief Liu Yaohua
was also dismissed on Saturday and replaced by Zhu Changjie, party chief of
Xinjiang's Aksu prefecture.
For the time being, the street protests in
Urumqi are under control after police reportedly used tear gas to disperse the
crowds. Hospitals in Urumqi are reported to have dealt with 531 victims of
syringe stabbings, 106 of whom showed obvious signs of needle attacks. Chinese
military medical experts on Saturday ruled out the possibility that radioactive
substances, anthrax or toxic chemicals were used in the attacks, Xinhua
reported, adding that samples had been sent to Beijing for further tests.
By Friday, Xinjiang police had detained 25 suspects, seven of whom had
been held in police custody, four of them had been formally arrested and four
others had been referred for criminal prosecution, Xinhua said.
the leadership reshuffle, the Urumqi government has announced a "strike hard"
campaign against syringe attacks. Attackers will be prosecuted quickly and
punished harshly, with convicted attackers possibly being given the death
penalty. Even one who spreads "rumors" about syringe attacks can be jailed for
five years. Meanwhile, unauthorized assemblies and demonstrations are banned and
armed police have been deployed across the city.
The government has also
announced the "soft" measure of sending 7,000 officials described as "harmony
makers" to residential communities in Urumqi to help ease panic and tension.