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Han Chinese hold protest in Xinjiang region

In a sign of continuing ethnic tensions in the Chinese region, thousands turn out in Urumqi, blaming minority Uighurs for reported attacks in which people were stabbed with hypodermic needles.

September 04, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — More than 10,000 Han Chinese marched in the streets of Urumqi on Thursday in a new protest that belied the government's claim of having quashed ethnic unrest in the capital city of Xinjiang province.

The protesters were enraged over what they said were hundreds of attacks in which people were stabbed with hypodermic needles, blaming ethnic Uighurs.

The northwestern-most region of China, Xinjiang has often witnessed violent confrontations between the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people concentrated there, and the Han Chinese, who are perceived by the Uighurs as colonizers.

Nearly 200 people were killed in Urumqi in early July in the worst race riots in recent Chinese history. In a sign of how volatile the situation remains, provincial Communist Party chief Wang Lequan was booed off the stage when he tried to deliver a speech at People's Square in the city center.

"He said one or two sentences and asked people to calm down, but people weren't satisfied," said one of the protesters, a 21-year-old college student who asked not to be named. "Many people tried to throw bottles of water at him."

The student estimated the crowd at 10,000 to 20,000, many of them waving Chinese flags.

There were occasional scuffles when the crowd tried to march toward a Uighur neighborhood. Riot police blocked the route. At one point, protesters threw bottles at police from the upper floors of a cinema at the square, and others overturned a car driven by a Uighur, the student said.

Chen Shengli, 41, a truck driver injured in the July 5 riots, said the Han Chinese majority in Urumqi are still furious with the government for failing to protect them.

"They underestimated the intention of the Uighurs at that time. They thought it was going to be just a protest, not a massive massacre," Chen said. "People are now angry. They feel like the criminals haven't been properly punished."

The resentment has been stoked by the needle attack allegations. Xinjiang television reported Thursday night that 476 people had sought treatment in the last two weeks for puncture wounds caused by hypodermic needles.

Although rumors flew furiously that the syringes contained poison or were contaminated with HIV-positive blood, authorities said there was no evidence that anyone had been infected or harmed.

Fifteen people were reported to have been arrested, but their ethnicity wasn't disclosed.

Chinese President Hu Jintao toured Xinjiang this week for the first time since the riots, trying to present an image of stability and normality.

Separately, a headline about a trade fair in Urumqi that was taking place last week declared "Xinjiang Emerging from Riot Shadow."

Ethnic harmony is one of the ideological underpinnings of the Chinese Communist Party and the theme is being emphasized in anticipation of massive celebrations Oct. 1 to mark the 60th anniversary of communist rule in China.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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