WASHINGTON — Three weeks after ethnic violence rocked Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang province, official Chinese news sources are carrying upbeat headlines and photos of smiling Uighurs on the streets, assuring readers that things in western China have returned to normal. On Friday, however, Chinese officials pledged to crack down with an "iron fist" on Uighurs who challenge the authorities.
"We will keep to the policy of launching 'pre-emptive strikes' against and cracking down on enemies with an iron first to curb violent criminality," Nur Berkri, the chairman of the regional government, said Friday, according to Xinhua, the official news agency.
Chinese officials maintain that their policies of resettling ethnic Han Chinese in the traditional homeland of the Muslim minority aren't to blame, and they continue to accuse U.S.-based Uighurs for the protests, which erupted into violence July 5.
Uighur activists in Washington, led by Rebiya Kadeer, the president of the World Uighur Congress, claim that official policies are at the root of the problem, a point that some neutral observers endorse.
Kadeer has challenged the official casualty numbers, as have some human rights groups.
"The Chinese government, through its proxies in the official media, is obscuring the truth in order to conceal a mass killing of Uighurs by Chinese security forces," Kadeer said earlier this week.
The Chinese government said that 197 people were killed and more than 1,600 injured; Kadeer thinks that the numbers are much higher.
Initially, the World Uighur Congress said that about 400 Uighurs were killed during the protests, but it now claims that as many as 1,000 Uighurs have been killed in the past few weeks.
Neither Kadeer nor the Chinese government has said how many Uighurs were killed and how many Han Chinese.
Although communication has been shut off from most parts of Xinjiang, Kadeer said Wednesday at the National Press Club that she'd been able to receive phone calls from dozens of Uighurs in China. She acknowledged that her casualty figures are unconfirmed. Along with human rights groups, she's called for an immediate, independent investigation into the executions and arrests of Uighurs.
"Until a credible international investigation is allowed, we are very skeptical about the numbers China has given," said Sophie Richardson, the Asia Advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. "We're talking about a government that still hasn't clarified how many people have died in much less controversial conflicts, such as the recent earthquake."
According to the Urumqi Police Department, by midnight July 5, more than 20,000 armed police officers, firefighters and troops were sent out to mitigate the unrest.
Witnesses told Kadeer that after dark, the authorities turned off the lights in the area where the Uighurs were protesting and suspended cell phone communications.
"Then the Chinese security forces — we were told — they fired upon the Uighur crowds in the dark, killing hundreds. Hundreds were massacred right there," Kadeer told reporters.
After the shooting, thousands of Uighur men were rounded up and arrested, and such arrests continue. So far, Chinese officials claim to have arrested some 1,434 suspects, but Uighurs in the U.S. say that the numbers are underreported.
"How come they don't tell the families where those Uighurs have disappeared? If they're in the hospital, why not say they're in the hospital? If they're in prison, why not say they're in prison?" asked Nury Turkel, a Uighur lawyer who's now living in the United States.
"The actual number of arrests is much, much higher, according to some of the phone calls we get from the Uighurs. Uighur males are disappearing in Urumqi, a lot of Uighur males," Kadeer told reporters.
Shortly after the July 5 riots, Chinese officials pledged to execute separatists.
"To those who have committed crimes with cruel means, we will execute them," Li Zhi, the top Communist Party official in Urumqi, said July 8.
Kadeer worries that the crackdown will be used to justify killing the Uighur prisoners. "We want the international community to pressure China to stop the proposed execution of the Uighurs that was declared by the top-level Chinese officials," she said.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a U.S. government-backed watchdog body, said that the riots were the products of long-standing ethnic tensions.
"Chinese policies are the source of Uighur distrust and resentment, and violate internationally guaranteed freedoms China has pledged to uphold," commission Chairman Leonard Leo told McClatchy.
Chinese officials dispute this.
"The nature of the riot is neither an ethnic nor a religious issue, but a grave and a violent criminal incident plotted and organized by the outside forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism," Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei said Wednesday at a news briefing.
China's ethnic policy has "nothing to do with the violent crimes in Xinjiang," Wu Shimin, the vice minister of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, said Tuesday.
"The Chinese government is just wrong," Leo told McClatchy. "The bottom line is you've got years of resentment and frustration on the part of the Uighurs because of the kind of repression of religious freedom that has been perpetrated by the Chinese government."
"The Chinese have engaged in very targeted ways to use nationalism and national security as fig leafs for repressing peaceful religious worship and banning people from attending mosques," Leo said.
The commission has extensively documented Chinese religious repression of the predominantly Muslim Uighurs. Women, children and government workers, for example, aren't allowed to attend mosques.
"While the events surrounding the recent ethnic clashes are unclear, Chinese repression of peaceful Uighur religious and cultural activities are well-documented," Leo said in an e-mail. "In the name of fighting terrorism, Beijing has arrested, harassed and discriminated against Uighurs."
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