Beijing scrambles to find scapegoats

Posted in China | 09-Sep-09 | Author: Wu Zhong| Source: Asia Times

Han Chinese demonstrators facing off against police during a protest in central Urumqi, in northwest China's restive Xinjiang region.

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 Party chief.

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 Chinese 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.

The 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.

But last 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.

Urumqi 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 ethnic groups.

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.

Han residents 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 ethnic issues.

"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 researcher.

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.

Since 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.