New Protests Reported in Restive Chinese Region

BEIJING — Thousands of Han Chinese protesters swarmed around government buildings in the capital of the restive Xinjiang region on Thursday to demand a crackdown on Uighurs after rumors spread that they were sticking hundreds of Hans with H.I.V.-tainted hypodermic needles.

03china2 600 300x165 New Protests Reported in Restive Chinese RegionThe fresh conflict in the capital, Urumqi, showed the resilient hostility between the Han, China’s dominant ethnic group, and the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people who mostly follow Sunni Islam. The Uighurs are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang, and long-simmering tensions between the two groups broke out in deadly rioting in Xinjiang two months ago.

On Thursday, witnesses described chanting crowds marching with Chinese flags, as well as moments of violence. At least one Uighur was beaten by a crowd as paramilitary police officers watched, said one witness. The police erected roadblocks, and schools were shut down.

Many protesters yelled, “Wang Lequan, step down!” referring to the powerful regional secretary of the Communist Party who has run Xinjiang for 15 years. Mr. Wang, a member of the ruling Politburo, has been widely criticized by Uighurs and foreign scholars of Xinjiang as a hard-liner whose policies have widened the divides among Hans, Uighurs and other ethnicities. But the Han frustration with him is based on criticism that he has not been harsh enough with the Uighurs.

Officials declined to discuss the protests. An employee at a government news media center in a hotel in Urumqi said: “You guys should not be so eager competing for the news. Just wait one day until the official news comes out.”

The latest protests took place in the middle of a five-day trade fair in Urumqi that is aimed at attracting overseas investment to Xinjiang. One government employee said regional officials feared that the Xinjiang economy would continue to suffer in the aftermath of the July violence, which left at least 197 people dead and 1,721 wounded, and brought ethnic tensions into the spotlight. The government said most of the casualties were Han civilians.

On Wednesday, China Daily, the official English language newspaper, ran a front-page article on the trade fair with the headline “Xinjiang Emerging From Riot Shadow.”

Rumors of people trying to spread H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, with needle attacks have circulated in China for years. Talk that Uighurs were on a needle-sticking spree built rapidly in Urumqi. A small protest on Wednesday led to the much larger one on Thursday.

Media accounts might have helped fan the anxiety. On Thursday, state-run Xinjiang Television said that 476 people, most of them Hans, had sought treatment since Aug. 20 for needle stab wounds, though only 89 had obvious signs they had been pricked.

Also, the Web site of China Daily published an article from Xinhua, the state news agency, that said police officers had detained 15 people in Xinjiang for needle attacks, though it did not say when. Four had been prosecuted, the account said.

The account quoted Yu Yunlin, a health official, as saying no one had been infected or poisoned so far.

After the large protests, government censors rushed to delete the news accounts on the Internet. By late afternoon, the Xinhua article published by China Daily was still on the newspaper’s Web site, but a news release on the same subject, posted on the Web site of the information office of the State Council, China’s cabinet, had been deleted.

By then, the rumors of stabbings had already struck fear into Han civilians across Urumqi.

“It’s the Uighurs!” said a retired woman living in an apartment near People’s Square in Urumqi, where protesters had gathered, when reached by telephone. “They hate the Han! Hundreds have been stabbed. Old people, young children, pregnant women.”

The woman said she had bought a week’s worth of food because she feared she might be stuck with a needle if she went outside. People were taking taxis because they feared being stabbed on buses, she said.

“The government hasn’t done anything,” she said. “They haven’t told us anything. They haven’t kept order. We’re all so angry. The July 5 incident was so brutal that we still haven’t recovered from that yet. And now this?”

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