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Report from Urumqi: Thousands of Chinese Troops Enter City Torn by Ethnic Clashes

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Thousands of Chinese troops have flooded into the regional capital of the country’s westernmost Xinjiang province following bloody clashes between the city’s Han Chinese and Uyghur populations. Four days after the violence that left at least 150 dead and over a thousand injured, reports indicate an unsteady calm has returned to the city of Urumqi. We go to Urumqi to speak with Al Jazeera English correspondent Melissa Chan. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Thousands of Chinese troops have flooded into the regional capital of the country’s westernmost Xinjiang province following bloody clashes between the city’s Han Chinese and Uyghur populations. Four days after the violence that left at least 150 dead and over a thousand injured, reports indicate an unsteady calm has returned to the city of Urumqi. Sunday’s clashes have been described as the bloodiest ethnic violence China has seen in years. Over a thousand people have been arrested [since] Sunday. And [on Wednesday,] the Communist party chief for Urumqi warned that anyone found guilty of murder would be executed.

For more, we’re joined now on the line from Urumqi by Melissa Chan. She’s the Beijing correspondent for Al Jazeera English and has been reporting from Urumqi since Monday.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

MELISSA CHAN: Great to be on.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you tell us what is the latest that’s been occurring now that the Chinese troops have moved into the capital of the region?

MELISSA CHAN: Well, after a strange few days, things are back to normal, insofar as anything can be normal with soldiers by the thousands in the center of the city. But it’s as back to normal as you can imagine. People are not walking around in the streets carrying sticks with knives stuck at the tips of them. So that’s good.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain, just for context, what exactly has happened over the last days since the original riots and the attacks that left 150 people dead, Melissa.

MELISSA CHAN: Well, in terms of asking the Uyghurs, who were the first to riot on Sunday night, it started out apparently as a peaceful protest. They were unhappy about the way the Chinese government handled a fight in southern China at a factory between Han Chinese and Uyghurs. And because of the internet, word got all the way up here to Urumqi about that. So, you had these students protest, but it got out of hand, and it became very, very violent. So that was Sunday night.

Subsequent nights had the Han Chinese on rampage heading to the Uyghur neighborhoods of Urumqi. This city is primarily Han Chinese, even though it’s in Xinjiang province. And so, it’s the Uyghur population that’s in the minority here in terms of numbers. And so, you certainly had the tables turned, where Han Chinese were asking for blood, frankly, and you had these Chinese soldiers and troops and armed police and riot police protecting the Uyghurs this time from the Han.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Melissa Chan, the Chinese government has always prided itself in the past on supposedly recognizing the rights of ethnic minorities in different parts of the country. What has been the roots of how this conflict has developed in Xinjiang?

MELISSA CHAN: Yeah, it’s very clear that there is resentment among the Uyghur population, if you talk to them. Just to point out, I am Han Chinese-looking, I’m American Chinese, so it’s hard to also get them to speak to me completely honestly. They’re much more open if I had blond hair, actually. But we do know that there are policies that the Chinese government does that makes them unhappy, that gives them the sense that their culture is being affected.

Just for one example, children, starting about a two years ago, two to six years ago, depending on what region of Xinjiang you’re in, in schools, they are no longer using the Uyghur language to teach. It’s been relegated into one course that’s a foreign language. So all other courses are taught in Mandarin Chinese. And that is going to make the next generation not as fluent in their native tongue. And so, you have the older generation of Uyghurs, the parents, concerned about that. And some of them are more concerned than others. But there’s all these little policies that the Chinese government has here which understandably upsets parts of the Uyghur population.

AMY GOODMAN: Melissa Chan, what about the mass arrests that have occurred there? More than 1,400 people have been arrested. We were playing video over the last few days of women, Uyghur women, saying that there was just a mass arrest of all the men.

MELISSA CHAN: Yeah. I mean, the thing is, the Chinese government just won’t give us any more information. We asked them at a press conference about this: in terms of the breakdown of arrests, what made them determine who to arrest? You know, a full twenty-four hours or thirty-six hours after the Sunday night riot, how can they decide?

And in the neighborhoods we went to, today even, there was a woman who told us her son had been taken away, and he was just thirteen or fourteen years old. So you wonder what a child can — how a child can be involved in the rioting. And then a man came up to us and said that his daughter was missing, as well, and she is eleven years old. So you do — it seems to be indiscriminant, if you are to believe what the Uyghurs say. And obviously, they are very upset.

We were in that area, as well, where the footage came out of all these Uyghur women with their children and their daughters weeping. And it seemed as if the police had just done a clean sweep through that neighborhood.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how has the government been dealing with the foreign press? Clearly, in past major incidents, like the rioting in Tibet and the massive earthquake that hit China, the government sought to prevent outside reporters from getting into the region. How have they been dealing with you?

MELISSA CHAN: Yeah, that’s a really good comparison with Tibet, because they seemed to immediately employ a different strategy. Maybe they thought that the way the press — the foreign press covered the Tibet issue about a year ago wasn’t to their liking, and they tried a new strategy, which is, immediately, when the death toll was announced to be close to 140 on Monday afternoon, local time, an email was sent out by the government inviting all of us to come to Urumqi. There would be a press center, and they would arrange for trips for us. So this was quite a surprise, because they could have employed the strategy that they did in Tibet, which was to shut the whole place down and not allow anyone to fly into Urumqi at all. They’d just stop us at the Beijing airport.

Having said that, a few of the journalists who arrived here early had unpleasant experiences with riot police on the ground. And there’s always this disconnect between the central government decision to do something and what happens on the ground. I mean, some of these policemen, some of these soldiers are very young; they’re nineteen years old, twenty years old. They might not have gotten word, they might be scared, they might be nervous. They haven’t dealt with foreigners that much. And so, some of my colleagues have been detained. Several journalists have been detained, held for a few hours. One — at least one had their camera smashed. And then, alternatively, we’ve also had plenty of luck, where we’ve been allowed to walk into neighborhoods, and they’ve not bothered us. So it’s been not very consistent.

AMY GOODMAN: And overall international access? I was speaking with a reporter in Beijing last night. He said Twitter had been shut down. And your international calls?

MELISSA CHAN: Yeah, that has been very difficult. In some ways, some of us have complained that we don’t feel particularly welcome, because we’ve all sort of stayed at — we’re all staying at this one hotel, and the reason we all are staying at this one hotel — I mean, the journalists — is because there’s only one room in this entire hotel that has internet access. The rest of the city has no internet access. I cannot text message. I cannot text message within China, and I cannot make international phone calls. So, that is extremely limiting. You know, if you are a freelance journalist working with few resources, it’s going to be very difficult for you to get the word out. We’re lucky because we have the technology to send our reports out, you know, with the software and our BGAN, but it’s been very difficult, and quite a number of people I know have been very, very frustrated here.

AMY GOODMAN: Melissa Chan, I want to thank you for being with us, Beijing correspondent for Al Jazeera English. She’s reporting to us from the city of Urumqi.

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