CHINA’S state media reports that four Uighurs, three of them apparently junkies, have been arrested in the tainted-needle scare that brought out tens of thousands of Han Chinese in two days of protests in Urumqi late last week. During the protests five people died, in unclear circumstances. That brings to 200 the number of dead in attack and counter-attack since an orgy of ethnic rioting, begun by Uighurs, broke out in Urumqi in July.
In China panic over AIDS-infected hypodermic needles is not new: a mass hysteria broke out in Tianjin and Beijing earlier this decade. This time in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, nearly 500 reported to hospital claiming to have been stabbed, though most showed no signs of having been pricked. Han Chinese now say that Uighurs are launching acid attacks. Hysterical rumour has shred all remaining trust between Han Chinese and Uighurs.
Uighur resentment at the swamping of their homeland by Han Chinese is nothing new. What is new is the nature of the latest protests. Despite 20,000 riot police in Urumqi, the protesters claimed the government had failed to protect Han Chinese. Their call for the removal of someone so senior as the longstanding party secretary of Xinjiang, Wang Lequan, is nearly unprecedented. Though Uighurs loathe the man for his hard line towards them, the protesters claimed he had done too little to protect Han communities. During the July riots, for example, armed police rushed to protect government buildings rather than neighbourhoods that were under attack.
Over the weekend Beijing sacked Urumqi’s party secretary. Presumably he is taking the rap for his seniors. For it would be extraordinary if Mr Wang were to go too, especially with the 60th anniversary of the October 1st founding of the People’s Republic in the air. Not only is Mr Wang an old comrade of President Hu Jintao and a member of the Politburo. To accept that popular protests can lead to changes at the very top might very quickly unravel the Communist Party’s authority.
Last year China’s leaders were able to turn race riots by Tibetans, as well as international criticism of the government’s harsh response, to their domestic advantage. Ordinary Han Chinese, who make up the vast majority of China’s population, heartily approved of the crackdown on Tibetans and the patriotic propaganda campaign that accompanied it. This time in Urumqi the usual response, which includes a near-total media and communications blackout on what really is going on, is no longer working its old magic.