China's hidden night of state bloodshed

Chinese soldiers patrol the streets of a Uighur neighborhood after an incident between ethnic Uighurs and Chinese security forces along the streets in Urumqi, Xinjiang province

By Michael Sheridan
POSTERS went up on lampposts and walls all around drab neighbourhoods in the northwestern area of China last week, announcing a series of executions.
They proclaimed the deaths of nine men convicted of murdering people during the racial violence that convulsed the remote city of Urumqi in July. No details were released of the condemned men’s last moments and few dared to mourn them.
The executions marked the culmination of the Chinese authorities’ response to a revolt by native Uighur Muslims in the city on July 5.
The revolt triggered violent clashes with Han Chinese settlers before being put down by security forces that night. Chinese civilians later turned on the Uighurs.
Since the clashes ended on July 7, the Chinese and the Uighurs have traded acrimonious claims about what happened and how many died.
The government said that of the 197 people killed, only 46 were Uighurs. A local official put the number of rioters shot dead by the security forces at just 12.
Exiles, however, alleged that hundreds of Uighur men had died and thousands had disappeared after a police and army sweep through the rough district of Sai Ma Chang.
Last week The Sunday Times conducted dozens of interviews in an investigation to discover what had happened.
We found a city with soldiers on every street, full of rumours and fear, cut off from communications with the outside world. But some facts became clear.
The trouble began thousands of miles away in June when workers at a factory in southern China ran amok on hearing dubious claims that a girl had been raped by migrant workers. Two Uighurs were beaten to death.
When news of this reached the Uighur region of Xinjiang by text message and mobile phone video, there was ferment. Students asked permission to hold a protest in People’s Square at the heart of Urumqi, the region’s capital.
They were turned down by Wang Lequan, the Communist party secretary, a hardliner who is the most powerful man in Xinjiang and also the architect of Chinese policy in neighbouring Tibet, but the authorities failed to defuse the tension.
In the late afternoon of Sunday, July 5, gangs of Uighur youths began attacking the police around People’s Square. They hurled rocks, smashed vehicles and set upon ordinary passers-by.
Repulsed, they gathered near the great bazaar and by 6pm a crowd of more than 1,000 was turning on the Han Chinese merchants.
Shops were ransacked and traders were killed where they worked. Their goods were looted.
By 8.30pm a reign of terror prevailed in the mixed ethnic districts that separate the poor Uighur districts in the south from the prosperous Chinese areas in the north.
The mobs bludgeoned and butchered their victims, women and men alike. Cars were burnt. Corpses lay in the streets.
All this time — in a strange echo of the official paralysis when riots broke out in Tibet last year — there was no sign of forceful measures to end the riot, even though Wang had thousands of troops and police at his disposal.
“Everybody knows Wang was getting drunk at his villa,” spat a local businesswoman, repeating a rumour widespread among everyone from taxi drivers to policemen.
The sophisticated version holds that the unrest suited the hardline agenda of repressive politics. “I believe they wanted it to happen,” claimed one well connected resident, “but it went out of control.”
After midnight, events took a decisive turn. First, a big force of army and special police units sealed off Sai Ma Chang. Then the power was cut off and a night of reciprocal terror began.
Numerous local witnesses, both Han and Uighur, confirmed hearing bursts of gunfire in Sai Ma Chang until dawn on Monday, July 6.
A man of 35, who gave his name as Shevket, said: “I know the difference between fireworks and machineguns. I heard shooting all night long. But we will never know how many of our brothers were taken and killed. Only God knows how many died.”
A Chinese woman who had stood and watched added: “They cut off the whole area and then they went in and got them. There was firing all night. But you couldn’t see much in the dark because the electricity was off.”
Around the bazaars there is talk that corpses were dragged away and buried in anonymous desert graves, but nobody has produced evidence.
A day later, Chinese mobs went on a reprisal rampage that was curbed quickly by the army but claimed an unknown number of casualties.
Raids and clashes persisted: in one, caught on video, three Uighurs with knives attacked eight armed police. They fought until all three had been shot, two fatally.
Every witness interviewed believed the number of Uighurs shot dead was many more than 12 but far fewer than the 400 to 800 claimed by the exiles. In China, all such information is a state secret.
The posters that went up last week showed the state making its case. The posters emphasised that the judges who had pronounced the death sentences were themselves Uighurs. So were the prosecutors and defence lawyers. The cases were conducted in the Uighur language. The trials were therefore “just and fair”.
Some detected in these pronouncements the strains of an empire that has subdued its minority peoples but is deeply troubled by its failure to integrate them into one nation.
As for the executed men, only one set of footprints led across the fresh snow that had fallen last Thursday on the newest graves in the Muslim cemetery in the foothills of the Tien Shan, the “heavenly mountains”.
A lone mourner had crept past the army checkpoints and toiled up the slopes to place bunches of crimson flowers at the head of each unmarked heap of earth.
The fate of the condemned — all but one of them Uighurs — was stark, but Human Rights Watch has documented 43 missing Uighur men and boys aged from 14 to 35. It said hundreds had been detained and dozens remained unaccounted for.
There is no doubt that harsh punishments were thought necessary to repress rebellion and placate the dominant Han Chinese, who enjoy a privileged status and whose fury at becoming victims has rebounded on the regime.
The Chinese government rushed to blame a “plot” led by the most famous Uighur exile, a businesswoman named Rebiya Kadeer who, in this script, plays the role of villain usually reserved for the Dalai Lama by the Chinese.
Two local government officials, both Uighurs, laughed at the claim of a conspiracy, however. “I can’t believe this,” said one.
It is, of course, easier to blame a plot than to admit that the hardline policy towards China’s minorities is a failure.
Yet that is the conclusion of an article published in September by the Xinjiang Social Research Review, a journal restricted to elite officials and academics.
It revealed that 97% of Chinese officials who come from minorities, such as Uighurs, Tibetans and Mongolians, feel “unease in their hearts” about the gap in wealth and power.
The direst finding of all was that 12% of these trusted officials believed the policy would, in the end, lead to the breakup of China.
“We have to admit there have been mistakes,” wrote Professor Tian Zhongfu, of the Xinjiang Socialism University, in a commentary on the figures.
The silent and snow-shrouded graves on the slopes of the heavenly mountains testify to that.