URUMQI, China – The Chinese government has acknowledged for the first time that police killed 12 people during July 5 unrest in western China but put the blame squarely on rioters, saying they stockpiled weapons and planned synchronized attacks on targets across the city of Urumqi.
But an expert on the situation in Xinjiang province said such accusations should be treated with skepticism because they are Beijing's attempt to distract people from the real issues upsetting ethnic minority Muslim Uighurs in the region.
The unrest began July 5 when police in Urumqi intervened on a peaceful protest by Uighurs, who went on a rampage, smashing windows, burning cars and beating Han Chinese, the nation's dominant ethnic group. Two days later, vigilante groups of Han took to the streets and attacked Uighurs.
The official Xinhua News Agency said late Saturday that the rioters appeared to have been well-organized, saying weapons were gathered in advance and that the agitation occurred all over the city. The report did not name individual sources nor offer concrete evidence. Government departments were either unreachable or refused to comment.
The local public security department told Xinhua it received reports of attacks on people and property in more than 50 locations across Urumqi at 9 p.m. on July 5. Targets included the offices of the Xinjiang regional committee of the Communist Party, the public security and fire departments and media organizations.
Xinhua cited the department as saying the rioters were mostly from outside Urumqi (pronounced uh-ROOM-chee), while businesses in the city reportedly said knives had been selling fast in the days leading up to the riot. It said residents believed stones used in the attacks were brought in from outside the city.
Meanwhile, Xinjiang Governor Nur Bekri said police shot the "mobsters" on July 5 after first firing warning shots, according to a separate Xinhua report. He said three of them died on the spot and nine died after treatment failed. He did not say which ethnic group the "mobsters" belonged to.
"The police showed as much restraint as possible during the unrest," Bekri was quoted as saying, adding that many police officers were injured and one was killed.
An official surnamed Wu from the Xinjiang regional government information office confirmed the report Sunday. Wu could not say if those killed by police were Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers) or Han Chinese.
The government first acknowledged that its security forces had opened fire more than a week after the rioting started, when police shot dead two Uighurs and wounded a third July 13. An Urumqi official said the Uighurs started fighting with police after officers tried to stop them from attacking a fellow Uighur.
Gardner Bovingdon, a Uighur expert at Indiana University, said the Chinese government has followed the same formula during many recent large protests: saying the unrest was premeditated to suggest it was less legitimate than if it had been spontaneous.
"They want to elicit sympathetic outrage at those violent Uighurs who attacked innocent Han Chinese," Bovingdon said. "They're engaging in spin by focusing exclusively on the violence to avoid addressing the source of the protest. They don't want people to be asking why Uighurs would be so angry."
The Uighurs, who number 9 million in Xinjiang, have complained about an influx of Han Chinese and government restrictions on their Muslim religion. They accuse the Han of discrimination and the Communist Party of trying to erase their language and culture.
Han Chinese, many of whom were encouraged to emigrate to the region by the government, believe the Uighurs should be grateful for Xinjiang's rapid economic development.
In Saturday's Xinhua report, Bekri said the death toll from the unrest had risen to 197. The government had previously said the rioting killed 192 and injured 1,721. Most of the dead were Han Chinese, though Uighurs say they believe many more of their community were killed in the ensuing government crackdown.