Urumqi, China: Chinese President Hu Jintao abandoned plans to attend a G8 summit in Italy on Wednesday, returning home early to deal with ethnic violence that has left at least 156 dead in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang.
The foreign ministry said Hu had left for China due to the “situation” in energy-rich Xinjiang, where 1,080 people have been injured and 1,434 arrested in unrest between Han Chinese and Muslim Uighurs since Sunday.
State councillor Dai Bingguo will attend the G8 summit in Hu’s place, the ministry added.
Urumqi, Xinjiang’s regional capital, imposed an overnight curfew after thousands of Han Chinese stormed through its streets demanding redress and sometimes extracting bloody vengeance for Sunday’s violence.
Police say the clashes were triggered by a brawl between Uighurs and Han Chinese at a factory in southern China prompted by a rumour Uighurs had raped two women. Police have detained 15 people, including two suspected of spreading rumours on the Internet.
“If a wrong is avenged with another wrong, there would be no end to it,” the state-owned English-language China Daily said in an editorial.
“Blood for blood is incompatible with the rule of law and will only lead to a vicious cycle of harm and revenge.”
Along with Tibet, Xinjiang is one of the most politically sensitive regions in China. It is strategically located at the borders of Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, has abundant oil reserves and is China’s largest natural gas-producing region.
Xinjiang has long been a tightly controlled hotbed of ethnic tensions, fostered by an economic gap between many Uighurs and Han Chinese, government controls on religion and culture and an influx of Han migrants who now are the majority in most key cities, including Urumqi. There were attacks in the region before and during last year’s Summer Olympics in Beijing.
But controlling the anger on both sides of the ethnic divide will now make controlling Xinjiang, with its gas reserves and trade and energy ties to central Asia, all the more testing for the ruling Communist Party.
Groups of Han gathered around reporters in Urumqi to talk about how angry they were and dragged away a Uighur woman who also approached. It was not clear what happened to her.
“We want these terrorists punished. Our hearts are still filled with anger,” said one of the Han Chinese men.
Li Yufang, a Han who owns a clothes store, said he was outraged by what had happened over the weekend and wanted to protest again, although he admitted it was unlikely amid the heavy presence of troops.
“Uighurs are spoiled like pandas. When they steal, rob, rape or kill, they can get away with it. If we Han did the same thing, we’d be executed,” he said.
On the other side of Urumqi’s now tensely divided neighbourhoods, Uighurs protested on Tuesday, defying rows of anti-riot police and telling reporters that their husbands, brothers and sons had been taken away in indiscriminate arrests.
The government has blamed the Sunday killings on exiled Uighurs seeking independence for their homeland, especially Rebiya Kadeer, a businesswoman and activist now living in exile in the United States.
“This was a massive conspiracy by hostile forces at home and abroad, and their goal was precisely to sabotage ethnic unity and provoke ethnic antagonism,” the Communist Party boss of Xinjiang, Wang Lequan, said in a speech.
“Point the spear towards hostile forces at home and abroad, towards the criminals who took part in attacking, smashing and looting, and by no means point it towards our own ethnic brothers,” he said, referring to Uighurs.
Kadeer, writing in the Asian Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, condemned the violence on both sides and again denied being the cause of the unrest.
“Years of Chinese repression of Uighurs topped by a confirmation that Chinese officials have no interest in observing the rule of law when Uighurs are concerned is the cause of the current Uighur discontent,” she wrote.
Uighurs, a Turkic people who are largely Muslim and share linguistic and cultural bonds with Central Asia, make up almost half of Xinjiang’s 20 million people.
The population of Urumqi, which lies around 3,300 km west of Beijing, is mostly Han.