Police have arrested 1,434 suspects in connection with the worst ethnic violence in decades in China’s western Xinjiang region, which killed at least 156 people, state media reported on Tuesday.
The arrests come amid a security clampdown on the region, with hundreds of paramilitary police with shields, rifles and clubs taking control of the streets of the capital, Urumqi, where the riots took place on Sunday.
The violence does not bode well for China’s efforts to mollify long-simmering ethnic tensions between the minority Uighur people and the ethnic Han Chinese in Xinjiang, a sprawling region three times the size of Texas that shares borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries.
Mobile phone service and the social networking site Twitter have been blocked, and Internet links also were cut or slowed down.
A nonviolent protest by 200 people was broken up in a second city, Kashgar, and the official Xinhua News Agency said police had evidence that demonstrators were trying to organize more unrest in Kashgar, Yili and Aksu.
It said police had raided several groups plotting unrest in Dawan township in Urumqi, as well as at a former race course that is home to a transient population.
The unrest in Urumqi began on Sunday after 1,000 to 3,000 protesters gathered at the People’s Square and protested the June 25 deaths of Uighur factory workers killed in a riot in southern China. Xinhua said two died; other sources put the figure higher. Internet and social networking reports on the incident had raised tensions in Xinjiang over the last two weeks.
Many Uighurs haven’t been wooed by the rapid economic development. Some want independence, while others feel they’re being marginalized in their homeland. The Han, China’s ethnic majority, have been flooding into Xinjiang as the region becomes more developed.
The government often says the Uighurs should be grateful for the roads, railways, schools, hospitals and oil fields it has been building in Xinjiang, a region known for scorching deserts and snowy mountain ranges.
A similar situation exists in Tibet, where a violent protest last year left many Tibetan communities living under clamped-down security ever since.
“The Han Chinese say we all belong to the same country. We’re all part of one big family,” said Memet, a restaurant worker who like other Uighurs declined to give his full name because he feared the police. “But the Han always treat us separately.”
A Han Chinese shopkeeper, who only gave his surname Wang because the ethnic issue is so sensitive, disagreed. “Those who cause such trouble are criminals,” he said. “They’re never happy with what they have.”
Sunday’s violence was notable because it happened in Urumqi, which has been relatively peaceful and hasn’t been a hotbed of religious or political agitation. In other restive Xinjiang cities, red propaganda banners are filled with slogans encouraging ethnic harmony. But most of the banners in Urumqi touted anti-drug and fire prevention campaigns.
The population of 2.3 million is also overwhelmingly Han Chinese in the city, a mixture of drab concrete apartment blocks and gleaming new office towers.
It is not clear how the violence started, as police confronted the protesters. Rioters began flipping over barricades, smashing shop windows and burning cars, according to media and witness accounts.
State television video showed protesters attacking and kicking people on the ground, and the government said many Han Chinese were injured by rampaging Uighurs.
There were no independent figures on the ethnic breakdown of the casualties. Xinhua quoted Li Yi, head of the publicity department of the Communist Party in Xinjiang, as saying Tuesday that 129 men and 27 women died. Li said 1,080 people were hurt in the rioting.
Chinese officials have singled out the leader of the US-based Uyghur American Association, Rebiya Kadeer, a former prominent Xinjiang businesswoman now living in Washington, for inciting the violence.
“Rebiya had phone conversations with people in China on July 5 in order to incite, and Web sites ... were used to orchestrate the incitement and spread propaganda,” Xinjiang Gov. Nur Bekri said on television, on Monday.
Kadeer said on Monday that she had learned through Web sites of the planned protests and called her brother to urge him and other family members to stay away.
“The Chinese government always blames me and the World Uyghur Congress for problems over there,” Kadeer said in Washington, DC “Any Uighur who dares to express the slightest protest, however peaceful, is dealt with by brutal force.”
While she blamed the government for the recent violence, she also condemned “the violent actions of some of the Uighur demonstrators” and said her organization supports only peaceful protests.
The government has accused Kadeer of having a hand in many of Xinjiang’s problems since her release from prison into US exile in 2005. The Foreign Ministry has publicly accused the 62-year-old of having links to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a group the US put on its terrorist blacklist.