Xinjiang Authorities Forcefully Suppress Demonstration, Restrict Free Flow of Information

August 6, 2009

Uyghurs in the city of Urumchi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), gathered on July 5, 2009, to protest authorities' handling of a reported attack on Uyghur factory workers by Han factory workers in late June in Guangdong province, and to protest government policy toward Uyghurs. Reports indicate the demonstration began as a peaceful protest and later turned violent as protesters clashed with police, who used tear gas and stun batons against the protesters, and later were reported to fire on the crowds.

Uyghurs in the city of Urumchi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), gathered on July 5, 2009, to protest authorities' handling of a reported attack on Uyghur factory workers by Han factory workers in late June in Guangdong province, and to protest government policy toward Uyghurs. Reports indicate the demonstration began as a peaceful protest and later turned violent as protesters clashed with police, who used tear gas and stun batons against the protesters, and later were reported to fire on the crowds. Official Chinese media sources described the demonstration as a riot orchestrated by U.S.-based Uyghur rights activist Rebiya Kadeer, and reported that the incident left at least 156 people dead and over 1000 people injured. Demonstrations also are reported to have occurred in other cities in the XUAR, and demonstrations and outbreaks of violence were reported again in Urumchi on July 7. Sources including overseas media have reported that violence in the region has included both Uyghurs' attacks on Han Chinese and Han attacks against Uyghurs. A number of details about the incidents remain unknown, and the Chinese government has instituted controls over the flow of information on the events.

See below for more information and see the end of this analysis for detailed recommendations.

Details of the July 5 Demonstration

Uyghur protesters began to demonstrate in Urumchi's People's Square around 5 p.m. Urumchi time on July 5 [equivalent to 7 p.m. in the XUAR according to the time standard used by the government and official sources], and after being suppressed there, the demonstration spread to other parts of the city, according to a July 5 report (in Uyghur) from Radio Free Asia (RFA). Organizers had used the Internet to mobilize support for the demonstration, which according to the RFA Uyghur-language report and another July 5 RFA report (in English), was planned as a peaceful protest against the government's response to a reported attack on Uyghur factory workers in late June in Guangdong province. (See below for details of the June incident.) Protesters initially numbered roughly 1000 people and grew to nearly 10,000, according to a second July 5 RFA report (in Uyghur). According to the report, the protesters made calls that they would "oppose brutality, not fear threats, not stay silent to oppression, and struggle for freedom." Police first used stun batons and tear gas on protesters, according to the first Uyghur-language report. The protests turned violent after police fired on crowds and demonstrators attacked police and nearby stores, according to the second Uyghur-language article. For additional initial reporting on the demonstration by overseas sources, see, e.g., a July 5 New York Times article and a July 5 press release from the Uyghur American Association (UAA). (Reports of the number of demonstrators, as cited in the reports, vary.) Demonstrators included young people, according to the RFA reports, but the first RFA report cited sources who said many students had not participated because they had been confined to school campuses for the past three days.

Reporting on the incident from official Chinese sources portrayed it as a riot, but official media sources also indicate that violence did not break out until a few hours after protesters gathered. According to one July 6 Xinhua report, "People began to gather in the Urumqi People's Square at 6:20 p.m. Sunday, and some started smashing and looting at about 8 p.m." A July 7 Xinhua article (via China Daily) reported that the "riot began around 8 p.m., when rioters started beating pedestrians and smashing up buses." By late Sunday evening, authorities "had sent more than 20,000 armed police, special police, firefighters and troops to quell Sunday's unrest" according to a source cited in a July 7 report from Xinhua. According to the source, the authorities used "tear gas grenades, stun grenades, and high-pressure water guns" to stop the demonstrators. Official Chinese media reports cited people who said rioters attacked bystanders in the streets. See, e.g., July 6 and 7 reports from Xinhua.

Chinese authorities reported the death toll at 156, with 1,080 injured in July 7 Xinhua reports (1, 2). The reports did not provide extensive details on the deaths, though one noted 129 of the dead were men and 27 were women, and authorities did not note the ethnicities of those who died. Rebiya Kadeer, speaking at a news conference in Washington, DC, cited sources at Xinjiang University as saying up to 400 people had died, but said the number could not be confirmed, according to a July 6 RFA report.

In addition to the Urumchi demonstration, a July 6 New York Times report said that a smaller protest occurred in the city of Kashgar on July 6, but was reported to be broken up quickly by authorities. Xinhua also reported on a gathering of people in Kashgar in a July 7 report. In a July 6 statement, UAA president Rebiya Kadeer reported that demonstrations occurred in both Kashgar and Hoten. See also a July 6 report from RFA describing the protest in Kashgar.

Uyghurs Protest Detentions

Following widescale detentions in the aftermath of the July 5 demonstration (see below for details), Uyghur women marched on July 7 in protest, calling for the release of family members, according to the July 6 New York Times report. See also a July 7 account from Xinhua.

Han "Protesters" Gather on July 7, Violence Continues

After the July 5 demonstration, reported as a "riot" by Chinese media, Xinhua reported on July 7 that "[s]everal thousand protesters, mostly Han Chinese, marched" in the streets of Urumchi that afternoon. Xinhua reported that the "protesters, holding clubs, knives, axes, hammers and various types of tools that could be used as weapons, shouted 'protecting our home, protect our family members.' The report said the protests "gradually dispersed in about 40 minutes." Police used tear gas on the crowd, according to a July 7 report from Agence France-Presse (via Bangkok Post). See also July 7 reports (1, 2) from RFA for more information. The Associated Press reported in a July 7 article (via Time) that groups of Han and Uyghurs separately continued to attack bystanders in the city.

Authorities Pursue Arrests, Heighten Security Measures

Authorities in the XUAR have heightened security measures in the aftermath of the demonstrations and have reported carrying out widescale detentions. After the region's police chief reported early on July 7 that officials had detained roughly 700 people and continued to pursue "about 90 other key suspects" (see a July 7 Xinhua article), a Communist Party official reported later in the day that authorities had detained 1,434 people--1,379 men and 55 women--in connection with the incident. The official said some "might be released if no serious criminal records were found," according to a paraphrasing of the official's remarks in a July 7 Xinhua report. XUAR Party Secretary Wang Lequan "said all Party members should take the strongest measures to deal with the enemies' attempt at sabotage and keep regional stability," according to another July 7 Xinhua report. The police chief said authorities had set up security checkpoints both in the city and in a neighboring district and prefecture "to prevent the rioters from fleeing," according to a description of the police chief's remarks in a July 6 Xinhua article. The Urumchi municipal government also instituted traffic restrictions in the area, according to a government announcement published July 6 on the Xinhua Xinjiang Web site. Traffic restrictions remained in place on the evening of July 6, according to a July 7 Xinhua report, and authorities implemented traffic restrictions and a curfew on July 7, according to a Xinhua report from that day. A shopkeeper cited in a July 6 Agence France-Presse report (via World News Australia) said authorities have ordered stores to close for three days.

RFA reported in several July 6 articles (1, 2, 3) that authorities had implemented tight security measures in cities throughout the XUAR, including armed vehicles in Ghulja and house-by-house searches in Kashgar, as well as similar searches and widescale detentions of Uyghur men within Urumchi.

Authorities Blame Uyghur Rights Activist Rebiya Kadeer, World Uyghur Congress

XUAR authorities have attributed the demonstration to instigation by U.S.-based Uyghur rights activist Rebiya Kadeer and the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, which Rebiya Kadeer heads. XUAR Communist Party Secretary Wang Lequan "said Monday the riot in Urumqi revealed the violent and terrorist nature of the separatist World Uyghur Congress leader Rebiya Kadeer," according to a July 7 Xinhua report. Another July 7 report from Xinhua described the World Uyghur Congress as a "separatist" group that "masterminded" the riot. A July 6 report from Xinhua quoted XUAR government chairperson Nur Bekri as describing the demonstration as an incident of "beating, smashing, looting, and burning" directed by forces outside China's borders. He stated that "ethnic unity" in the region remained "as solid as a rock."

The accusations against Rebiya Kadeer follow other efforts to cast the Uyghur rights activist and former political prisoner as a terrorist aimed at instigating separatism in the region. In May 2009, a XUAR public security official said terrorists "are still actively plotting new sabotage activities" and included Rebiya Kadeer and the World Uyghur Congress among "terrorist forces…actively expanding their room for maneuver," according to a May 22 China News Service report (via Open Source Center, subscription required.) Local government authorities also have incorporated harsh rhetoric against Rebiya Kadeer in recent propaganda campaigns. Since Rebiya Kadeer's release from prison in 2005, authorities have harassed her family members remaining in the XUAR, culminating in prison sentences given to two of her sons, Alim and Ablikim Abdureyim, in 2006 and 2007. See the CECC Political Prisoner Database for additional information. For more information on longstanding government measures to harass and discredit Rebiya Kadeer and her family, see also the box titled "The Chinese Government Campaign Against Rebiya Kadeer" in Section IV--Xinjiang, in the CECC 2008 Annual Report.

Government Blocks Information Flow

Although Chinese sources have reported extensively on the demonstration, they have taken steps to control the flow of information and block unofficial reports and discussion of the demonstration. An Urumchi Communist Party official said on July 7, "We cut Internet connection in some areas of Urumqi in order to quench the riot quickly and prevent violence from spreading to other places," according to a July 7 Xinhua report. Authorities also appeared to block nationwide access to the social networking cite Twitter and video sharing site Youtube, remove comments about the protests from Web sites, and filter Internet searches for information. See e.g. July 6 reports from Agence France-Press (via Google), IDG News Service (via PC World), Reuters, and the BBC, and a July 7 report from Agence France-Presse (via Inquirer). RFA reported difficulty accessing the XUAR via telephone in a July 6 report. On July 6 and 7, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China was unable to access several Web sites based in the XUAR or that deal with Uyghur issues, including the media outlet Tianshan Net, the Web site of the Urumchi government, and several popular Uyghur-language Web sites, including and the bulletin-board service (BBS) on

Xinhua reported on July 7 that "about 60" foreign journalists were in the XUAR "on a reporting trip arranged by the Information Office of the State Council, the Chinese Cabinet." Another July 7 Xinhua report said over "60 overseas media have sent journalists to" Urumchi, and cited a Communist Party official who said, "We disclosed information shortly after the incident. We welcome domestic and overseas journalists to come and see what happened." The official did not discuss what restrictions apply or the role of officially arranged reporting trips, but said, "As long as security can be guaranteed, we will try our best to arrange interviews," according to the article. A July 7 New York Times report said the government set up a media center for arriving reporters and took them on a tour of one of the neighborhoods most affected by violence. The report noted, however, that the journalists "were explicitly barred from conducting any interviews without government minders present, and television journalists who sought to wander on their own were reported to have been stopped by police or paramilitary officers who demanded that they turn over their film."

Official Accounts of Guangdong Factory Incident Inconsistent

Uyghurs demonstrating in Urumchi were protesting government handling of a reported attack on Uyghur workers in late June by Han workers at a factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province, also described in Chinese sources as a brawl among the workers. According to a June 29 report from Xinhua (via, a "mass brawl" broke out on June 26 after a factory worker upset over not being rehired for a job posted what Xinhua described as a fake rumor on the Internet claiming six men from the XUAR had raped two women at the factory. Police took the factory worker into detention for posting the rumor, Xinhua reported. "Police found no rape cases at the Xuri Toy Factory," according to the article, which also reported that two workers from Xinjiang had died and 118 were injured in the brawl. A Uyghur factory worker who was an eyewitness to the event reported than Han factory workers instigated the attack when they entered a dormitory for Uyghur workers, according to a July 5 RFA report. Following the attack, authorities sequestered Uyghur factory workers, according to the report. (See also a June 29 RFA report for additional information.) A June 30 China Daily article said that roughly "600 Uygur workers were sent from the factory to temporary accommodations after the incident." A Guangdong provincial official pledged to pursue the people who had murdered the two Uyghur workers, according to a June 26 report on Nanfang Net, though no information was immediately available on the investigation. Overseas Uyghur rights organizations have criticized the government for failing to take steps to stop the attack and for its lack of transparency in handling the matter. See, e.g., a June 29 press release from the Uyghur American Association and July 1 press release from the World Uyghur Congress. A public security official from Shaoguan reported on July 7 that authorities detained 13 people--including "three natives of Xinjiang"--for their role in the "massive fight," according to a Xinhua report from that day. In addition, authorities detained two people for "spreading rumors on the Web that Xinjiang employees had raped two female workers," according to the report.

Following the July 5 Urumchi demonstration, Xinhua reported that XUAR government chairperson Nur Bekri attributed the July 26 Shaoguan incident to a Uyghur worker's attack of a Han Chinese worker. "The fight was triggered by the sexual assault of a female Han worker by a Uygur coworker, [Nur Bekri] said," according to a July 6 Xinhua report. In a July 6 Chinese-language Xinhua report (via Ta Kung Pao), Nur Bekri said a female factory worker entered a dormitory for workers from the XUAR and was teased by the residents. After she reported the incident to her co-workers, the workers went to the Xinjiang workers' dorm, where "emotions became agitated" and a "fight broke out," according to the report.

Demonstration Comes Amid Period of Heightened Repression, Illustrates Ongoing Labor Abuses

The demonstration comes during a period of heightened repression in the region since early 2008. See Section IV--Xinjiang in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) 2008 Annual Report and recent CECC analyses (1, 2, 3) for more information. Details of the demonstration and the incident in Guangdong also shed light on ongoing labor rights abuses in the region. The Uyghur factory workers in Guangdong were part of government-organized programs to send laborers in the XUAR to factory jobs in the interior of China, as reported in the June 30 China Daily article. As noted in the CECC 2008 Annual Report, government authorities maintain programs that send young ethnic minorities to work in factories in China's interior, where some workers have reported abusive labor conditions. Overseas sources have reported cases of local authorities coercing participation and of factories mistreating workers. In a series of reports from Radio Free Asia in Spring 2009, some girls and women in the program continued to report on abusive labor practices including the use of coercion by local officials to gain their participation and abusive working conditions. (See, e.g., March 5 and March 20 Uyghur-language reports and a May 12 English-language report. For Chinese reporting on labor issues in the region, including participation in government-sponsored programs, see, e.g., a January 12 report from Tianshan Net. For additional information, see also a July 6 report from China Labor Watch and February 8, 2008 report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

Information on Continuing Conflict and Government Response

News on Controls Over Free Flow of Information

Newly Reported Information on June 26 Guangdong Factory Incident

Additional Resources

For more information on conditions in the XUAR, see Section IV--Xinjiang, in the CECC 2008 Annual Report. See also the following recent Commission analysis:

CECC Recommendations

Call on the Chinese government to:

  • Honor the Chinese Constitution's guarantees for the freedoms of speech and association, distinguish between acts of peaceful protest and acts of violence, and not treat peaceful protest as a crime.
  • Allow international observers and journalists immediate and unfettered access to the XUAR.
  • Provide details about each person detained or charged with a crime, including each person's name, the charges (if any) against each person, the name and location of the prosecuting office ("procuratorate") and court handling each case, and the name of each facility where a person is detained or imprisoned.
  • Ensure that security officials fulfill their obligations under Articles 64(2) and 71(2) of China’s Criminal Procedure Law to inform relatives and work places where detainees are being held.
  • Allow access by diplomats and other international observers to the trials of people charged with protest-related crimes.

See the CECC 2008 Annual Report for other recommendations for addressing human rights abuses in the XUAR.