At Least 140 Dead in Clashes in China's Xinjiang Province

Chinese authorities announced today that some 140 people had been killed and over 800 wounded in protests that roiled Urumqi, the capital of China's far western Xinjiang province, on Sunday. According to the official news agency Xinhua, Urumqi police chief Liu Yaohua told a press conference that the number of dead was still rising and that there had also been extensive damage to property.

The enormous loss of life marked a bloody milestone in Beijing's administration of the troubled zone, in which Muslim Uighurs make up the majority of the population. It also presages a severe tightening of the already vise-like grip the authorities maintain on the semiautonomous region, one that could be even harsher than the crackdown that followed the violent suppression of protests in the Tibetan capital Lhasa in March of 2008. Officials said that several hundred protesters had already been arrested and some 90 more were still being sought on Monday afternoon. "I fear for what is to come," said Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch. "China has a very poor record of accountability when it comes to those arrested for protesting. In Tibet, for example, there are still hundreds unaccounted for by the government's own admission."

Liu told the official news agency that rioters burned 261 motor vehicles and around 200 shops yesterday in violence that was, according to an earlier Xinhua report, "masterminded from overseas by the separatist World Uighur Congress WUC led by Rebiya Kadeer." Sections of the city populated by concentrations of ethnic Uighurs, who make up only around 10% of Urumqi's population, were reportedly under curfew Monday.

Alim Seytoff, a spokesman for the WUC, a Washington, D.C.-based Uighur exile group founded by Rebiya Kadeer, denied it had had any role organizing the protests. "It is shocking to see the extent of the lethal force the Chinese government used against peaceful, unarmed protesters," Alim said in a telephone interview. "This is the darkest day in recent Uighur history."

Alim said the demonstrations were a reaction to a June 26 incident at a factory in Guangdong province, when two Uighur workers were beaten to death by Han Chinese colleagues. "The mob in Guangdong beat and killed Uighurs with immunity," Alim says. "The security forces didn't arrest anyone and did absolutely nothing. The protesters were very angry and disappointed." Alim added that the WUC believed that more than two Uighurs may have died in the Guangdong incident.

China blames ongoing unrest in the far-flung province on separatist groups seeking an independent state of East Turkestan. During the 1980s and early '90s, Xinjiang experienced a number of bombings and protests, but had been quiet up until the time of the Beijing Olympics in August 2008. In the lead-up to the Games and after, separatist groups allegedly staged several fatal attacks on Chinese security forces. Responsibility for two deadly bus bombings in Shanghai and Yunnan province during the same period, meanwhile, was also claimed by a Uighur separatist group, a claim Beijing denies, calling the incidents accidents.

Dru Galdney, a professor of anthropology at Pomona College in California and author of numerous articles and books on the region, said it was particularly notable that Sunday's protests took place in Urumqi, where Uighurs make up only a tiny proportion of the population. "Urumqi is the center of Chinese power and influence in Xinjiang and there haven't been any protest there since the early '90s, which makes this very, very unusual," says Galdney. Bequelin of Human Rights Watch concurred, noting that not only is the Uighur population small but that the city was already under very tight control by the security forces, meaning that "such a shockingly high death toll must have meant a complete break own of law and order."

Urumqi is also home to a number of universities, and students were reportedly well represented among the protesters. According to Alim of WUC, after the street protests had been stopped, Chinese security forces "stormed into Xinjiang University and several other universities, entering the dormitories and arresting students." He said many students were killed in front of the gates of the university by armed security forces shooting automatic weapons and using armored personnell carriers.

Reaction in China outside of Xinjiang has been muted so far, largely because as is usual with issues considered sensitive by the authorities, major Chinese websites have all removed or shut down readers' comments - a traditional channel for the Chinese to weigh in on current affairs. On , a popular online chat room frequented by overseas Chinese, responses reflect a rush of nationalism. "We must spare no violence to unify our nation," writes one netizen named "welltwo." "I support tough military crackdown," says another. "They [the rioters] deserve no explanation." Meanwhile, news about information lockdown in Xinjiang has been widely spread and criticized through the microblogging website, Twitter.

Economic factors also probably played a role in the protests, says Gladney of Pomona College, in part because of frustration among the large numbers of young Uighur men who cannot find work, a situation they often blame on the large influx of Han from other parts of China whom they believe are given preferential treatment by both private and government employers. He also believes that the street protests in Tehran and other Iranian cities that followed the recent presidential election may have influenced protesters in Urumqi.

Alim of the WUC denied that either factor lay at the root of the eruption of anger. "The real cause," he says, "is six decades of heavy-handed repression by the Chinese government in Xinjiang that has reduced Uighurs to second-class citizens in their own homeland. If we speak up we get killed. If we don't speak up we will be wiped out as a people in a few decades" by Han Chinese immigration and forced assimilation. Bequelin of Human Rights said the feeling of helplessness and desperation conveyed by those words gives a strong indication of the forces driving the Uighur protesters. "You could say they were suicidal," Bequelin said. "They knew the terrible consequences of protesting for themselves and their families and yet they went out anyway."

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Wuppertal in Germany. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender