Chinese leaders removed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief of the restive western city of Urumqi yesterday, trying to appease public anger following sometimes violent protests this week that the government worries could re-ignite deadly ethnic rioting.
Xinhua news agency, in announcing the decision, did not give a reason for the firing of Li Zhi (栗智), but protesters who marched in their thousands on Thursday and Friday have demanded Li and his boss be dismissed for failing to provide adequate public safety in the city.
A series of stabbings with hypodermic needles that the government blames on Muslim separatists touched off the protests, which left five dead, and further unnerved the city, which is still uneasy following rioting in July that the government says killed 197, mostly members of China’s Han majority attacked by Muslim Uighurs.
Trying to get control of the situation, leaders replaced Li with Zhu Hailun (朱海倫), who has been the party’s top official in charge of law enforcement in Urumqi. Also sacked, Xinhua said, was an official in the police department for Xinjiang, China’s western-most region that abuts Central Asia and whose capital is Urumqi. The official’s name was not released.
Besides assuaging public anger, the Chinese leadership hopes that sacking Li will alleviate calls to remove Xinjiang party secretary Wang Lequan (王樂泉), a member of the ruling Politburo and an ally of President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
Both Li and Wang took visible roles in trying to defuse the protests, separately wading into crowds to meet with protesters on Thursday, only to be greeted with shouts of “step down.”
By yesterday, thousands of troops, backed by tanks and metal barricades, patrolled Xinjiang’s regional capital. Paramilitary police manned checkpoints on streets around government and Communist Party headquarters, where security forces fired tear gas on Friday to disperse angry crowds of Han Chinese who say the government isn’t doing enough to protect them from extremists among the native Uighur population.
Entrances to the city’s Muslim quarter remained blocked by thousands of troops backed by heavy metal barricades and tanks.
Traffic was barred from much of the downtown area in the city of 2.5 million and many shops were closed.
There were no updated figures for the number of needle attacks, but unconfirmed reports of new incidents continued to spread through agitated crowds. Angry Han rushed to the southern edge of the city’s central square after people said two Uighur men had attacked an 11-year-old boy. Riot police quickly cleared the area.
The needle attacks began on Aug. 20, though were not publicly reported until Wednesday following days of rumors. Urumqi Deputy Mayor Zhang Hong (張鴻) said on Friday that 21 suspects had been detained, with four people indicted. He said all were Uighurs, while most victims were Han.
Local police said hospitals in Urumqi were treating 531 people who believed they were attacked, Xinhua said. Of those, 106 showed obvious signs of needle attacks, it said.
Details of the protest deaths were few, although Zhang said on Friday that they all occurred on Thursday, the first day of the street protests, and resulted from “small-scale clashes.” He said two of those killed were “innocent,” while investigations into the other three deaths were continuing.
A report in Urumqi’s Morning Post yesterday said a “small number of people became overexcited and lost control of themselves” during Thursday’s demonstrations. It said casualties included police, paramilitary troops and innocent civilians, but gave no breakdown.
The World Uyghur Congress, a German-based exile group, said Han Chinese attacked more than 10 Uighurs during the protests and tried to storm the Nanmen mosque, but were stopped by authorities.
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