Demonstrations Take Place Again in Xinjiang Following Reported Syringe Attacks

November 6, 2009

Demonstrations--primarily by Han Chinese--took place in Urumqi, capital of the far western region of Xinjiang, in early September. The demonstrations came roughly two months after a demonstration by Uyghurs on July 5 and outbreaks of violence in the city starting that day. In the September demonstrations, participants protested the government response following events on July 5 and following reports that people had randomly attacked Urumqi residents with syringes. Crowds of people reportedly attacked some bystanders or people believed to have committed the syringe attacks, and police reportedly clashed with some protesters. Officials announced that five people died during one day of the demonstrations. Within a short period of time after the September demonstrations, authorities tried and convicted several people charged with syringe attacks.

Demonstrations--primarily by Han Chinese--took place in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), in early September, following almost two months after a demonstration by Uyghurs on July 5 and outbreaks of violence in the city starting that day. During the September demonstrations, participants protested the government response following events on July 5 and after reports that primarily Han residents of Urumqi alleged that persons they believed to be Uyghurs had randomly attacked them with syringes. Following gatherings on September 2, according to Xinhua, the demonstrations swelled on September 3, and additional demonstrations and gatherings continued into the following days. (See, e.g., September 3 Agence France-Presse (AFP) (via The Free Library) and Reuters reports, September 4 reports from the Associated Press (AP) (via Toronto Star) and Xinhua (1, 2), a September 5 Xinhua report (via China Daily), and a September 7 Reuters report.) Urumqi deputy mayor Zhang Hong said on September 4 that 5 people died and 14 were injured during demonstrations on the previous day, and 2 of the dead had been "confirmed as innocent civilians," according to the second September 4 Xinhua report. During the demonstrations, protesters reportedly called for the resignation of XUAR Party secretary Wang Lequan, according to the Reuters and AP reports. Authorities have blamed "separatist forces" for the syringe attacks and strife in the region (see below for details), but also removed Urumqi Party secretary Li Zhi and XUAR public security department director Liu Yaohua from their positions on September 5, following the start of the September demonstrations. They have been replaced with other officials from within the XUAR Party apparatus and government. (See a September 5 Xinhua report, via CCTV.)

Authorities Disperse Crowds With Tear Gas, Impose Ban on Demonstration

Authorities used tear gas on crowds and reportedly beat some protesters, while media reported on cases of crowds beating bystanders or people believed to have committed syringe attacks. A journalist from Hong Kong described being among a crowd of people on September 4 whom police tear gassed, detained, and beat. The reporter was released from detention, along with two photographers, that day, according to a September 4 South China Morning Post (SCMP) article (subscription required, searchable through the archive). (In addition, see information on the use of tear gas in the September 5 Xinhua report via China Daily. See a September 7 SCMP article on reporters from Hong Kong detained again in Urumqi as they attempted to carry out interviews of people who had been tear gassed.) The Xinhua report said "victims sought revenge" on two alleged syringe attackers, and that public anger after police isolated the alleged attackers led police to use the tear gas. The AFP and September 7 Reuters reports cited sources who said Uyghurs had been beaten by crowds. A September 4 Xinhua report said crowds had beaten "suspects" who had been "caught...when attacking members of the public." Authorities issued a ban against unlicensed demonstrations on September 4 (see September 4 Xinhua reports in English and translation of the Chinese text from the China News Service in Open Source Center, subscription required), following an earlier ban issued after the July 5 demonstration. According to the Chinese text of the September ban, authorities may use force to disperse crowds.

Syringe Attacks Attributed to "Three Forces"

Official media and government portrayals of the July and September demonstrations have pinpointed activities by Uyghurs as the root of conflict and have downplayed Uyghur sources of grievances. In contrast, while authorities clamped down on the September demonstrations by Han Chinese, government authorities and official media appear to have taken a sympathetic stance toward the sentiments stoking those demonstrations. Urumqi deputy mayor Zhang Hong said that Uyghurs had carried out the syringe attacks, according to the September 5 Xinhua report (via China Daily). A September 5 Xinhua report described obtaining drug money as the motivation of one threatened syringe attack and robbery. Authorities more broadly attribute the attacks to "separatists." Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu described the syringe attacks as a continuation of attacks instigated by "ethnic separatist forces" on July 5 (Xinhua, via China Xinjiang Net, September 7), and Zhang Hong attributed the syringe attacks to the "three forces" of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism (Xinhua, September 4). The government similarly attributed events on July 5, a day when Uyghurs demonstrated to protest government handling of a reported attack on Uyghur factory workers and when acts of violence also occurred, to the "three forces" and to U.S.-based Uyghur rights advocate Rebiya Kadeer in particular. Zhang Hong was paraphrased as attributing the source of the September demonstrations to "panic and resentment from the public" caused by the syringe attacks. (Syringe attacks have been reported in the past in China, and in some cases, the extent of the threat appears to have been magnified by rumors and fear of HIV transmission, amid tight government controls over the flow of information. See a July 31, 2002, Kyodo article (via bnet) and February 20, 2002, Chicago Tribune article (via Aegis).) In Urumqi, as of September 4 "local authorities had confirmed 531 victims of hypodermic syringe stabbings in Urumqi, 171 of whom showed obvious syringe marks," according to a September 13 Xinhua report. Military medical specialists who examined cases of needle attacks found no evidence of viruses or chemicals, according to the report.

Reports Detail Punishment for Syringe Attacks, Launch Ideological Campaigns

In the days following the demonstrations, authorities carried out measures to curb the demonstrations and described steps to punish people for the syringe attacks and directives aimed also at punishing acts such as spreading rumors about the attacks. A September 6 notice (described in Xinhua, via the Hebei News Net) issued jointly by the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court, municipal procuratorate, and public security bureau, said needle attacks involving syringes filled with poison or discarded drug needles could result in punishments including death. Attacks involving clean needles or pins also will be subject to criminal punishment, as will intentionally spreading false information about the attacks, according to the notice. A September 7 notice (described in Xinhua, via China News Net) from the XUAR public security department also states that those involved in syringe attacks and intentionally alleging false syringe attacks will face punishment. According to a government spokesperson discussing the notice at a September 8 press conference (via Xinhua Xinjiang, September 9), authorities will punish attacks involving any type of tool, including tacks or pins, because the instances of syringe attacks are "a continuation of our battle with the enemy" after July 5 and are not "ordinary acts of harm, but...criminal acts that seriously harm social order and state security." Xinhua reported on September 9 that authorities had picked up 45 people and held 12 of them in detention. In addition, authorities sent eight people "for forced isolation of drugs," an apparent reference to forced drug detoxification. The public security bureau arrested 4 people on September 7, according to a September 8 Xinhua Xinjiang report. China Daily and Xinhua (via China Daily) reported on September 16 that 75 people to date had been taken into custody. In a rapid progression of the criminal process, three people were sentenced on September 12 to prison terms between 7 and 15 years for crimes related to needle attacks or threatened needle attacks, according to September 13 Xinhua (via China Daily) and September 14 China Daily reports. Four more people received prison sentences between 8 to 15 years on September 17, according to Xinhua reports (English, Chinese) from that day. According to the reports, one of the people sentenced on September 12 and the four sentenced on September 17 had been charged with the crime of "spreading false toxic substances" (Article 291 of the PRC Criminal Law as amended in 2001).

Following the September demonstrations, XUAR Party secretary Wang Lequan also described efforts to dispatch 7,000 officials to "explain policies and solve disputes" in connection to recent strife, according to a September 7 Xinhua report. Wang said the steps will build off of earlier measures after July 5 where officials carried out "a great deal of face-to-face educational work in communities and [maintained] social order." Earlier, Urumqi's mayor reported on August 6 that "stability work teams" dispatched after July 5 had done on-site investigations of 636,000 households and interviewed 1,491,000 people, according to a Xinjiang City News report (via China Xinjiang, August 7).

For more information on events in the XUAR starting July 5, see previous Commission analysis (1, 2, 3, 4). For background information on conditions in the XUAR, see Section VI--Xinjiang in the CECC 2009 Annual Report.