China’s Crackdown in Xinjiang Persists 3 Years After Unrest

July 5, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
A Uyghur man looks at Chinese policemen blocking a street on July 9, 2009 in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, China. (Guang Niu/Getty Images)

The top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official who oversees the restive Xinjiang region vowed recently to use an “iron fist” to crack down on potential unrest three years after ethnic violence rocked the area. Rights groups have slammed Chinese authorities for human rights abuses and disappearances.

Ethnic riots involving the Uyghur minority and the Han Chinese majority left around 200 dead in 2009 and prompted the CCP to institute heavy security in the northwestern region.

The comments by Zhang Chunxian, the secretary of the Party Committee of Xinjiang, threatening a rigorous crackdown were accompanied by a special drill conducted by Chinese special forces, state reports said.

In addition, checkpoints were set up along major traffic arteries, and the army was put on high alert, with snipers deployed, according to state reports.

Body searches were also intensified at airports, with one woman complaining on her microblog of being forced to remove her clothes and being pinched on the bottom and breasts by an airport security guard.

The woman, who identified herself as “Zohre-M” on Weibo, a popular Twitter-like service, said she cried about the treatment on her one-hour flight.

Even many of the petite women usually found serving food on airplanes had been swapped for burly men, according to New Tang Dynasty Television.

Uyghurs living in the region have long accused Beijing of political and religious persecution.

The World Uyghur Congress said in a statement that Uyghurs in Xinjiang will “stage protests on the 3rd anniversary” of the crackdown and reiterated that “many Uyghurs were arbitrarily detained, sentenced to death or lengthy sentences after trials plagued with politicization and strangleholds on due process.” 

Crackdown Worsens

By some accounts, the riots initially began as peaceful protests in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi but turned violent. After the incident, thousands of Uyghurs were rounded up by the Chinese authorities. Chinese state media blamed the violence on “knife-wielding thugs” who looted shops.

During the unrest, witnesses told the rights group Amnesty International that China’s official story was incorrect, with security forces dishing out rampant beatings, using tear gas, and shooting directly into crowds.

Head of the World Uyghur Congress Rebiya Kadeer in an editorial published in the Wall Street Journal, said that as many as 43 men and boys disappeared and were never heard from again after the riots. She opined, “The responsibility for the violence lies with the policies of the Chinese authorities.”

“Beijing has deliberately assaulted the Uyghur identity of our region by compelling millions of ethnic Han Chinese to settle in the area and at the same time coercing Uyghurs to move to other parts of the country, citing labor shortages as the justification,” Kadeer added.

At the time, officials blamed overseas groups for instigating the riots.
Amnesty International echoed Kadeer’s statements, saying that dozens of Uyghurs disappeared in the wake of the riots. Chinese authorities went house to house, searching for members of the ethnic minority and detained hundreds or possibly thousands of people.

“For almost three years, I have not known where my son is—even whether he is alive or dead,” Patigul Eli, the mother of a Uyghur student who disappeared after the unrest, was quoted by Amnesty as saying.

Three years on, the repression of Uyghurs still takes place and authorities seek to silence people who have attempted to speak out against abuses, said Catherine Baber, who directs Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific program. Families who have attempted to find out about their loved ones have faced intimidation, detention, or were threatened by local officials.

“Chinese authorities must reveal the whereabouts of those individuals subject to enforced disappearance, and end the persecution of their family members seeking answers,” she said.

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