BEIJING – Hundreds of Chinese protested deteriorating public safety Thursday after a series of mysterious syringe attacks further unnerved residents in the western Chinese city of Urumqi where ethnic rioting in July killed nearly 200 people.
People living near the city center reached by telephone said hundreds, possibly thousands, of members of China's Han majority marched peacefully in the city center. They waved Chinese flags, confronted local Communist Party leaders demanding they step down, and shouted "severely punish the hooligans" — a reference to the July 5 rioters.
The demonstration underscored public jitters and lingering grievances despite the city's still-high police presence. It also posed a challenge for the Beijing leadership and a propaganda drive portraying Urumqi and all of China as harmonious ahead of the 60th anniversary of communist rule Oct. 1.
July's riot — in which ethnic Muslims first set upon Hans who then retaliated with vigilante attacks — was the worst communal violence in a decade in Xinjiang, an often tense Central Asian frontier region with valuable oil and gas deposits.
Thursday's protest came after days of rumors that gangs roamed the city stabbing mostly Han people with hypodermic needles, scaring residents. City officials and state media confirmed the attacks, saying 21 had been detained. A report read on Xinjiang TV's newscast Thursday said 476 people sought treatment for stabbing, though only 89 had obvious signs of being pricked.
While no motivations for the attacks were given, the report gave a breakdown of the victims showing almost all, 433, were Han Chinese with the rest drawn from eight other ethnic groups. The tally suggested the attacks were ethnically motivated and indicated the breadth of unease in the city.
Concerns about the stabbings may be high because Xinjiang has the highest rate of AIDS virus infections in China, with about 25,000 cases of HIV reported last year. The problem is fueled by needle-sharing among drug users.
As Thursday's protests gathered steam, demonstrators headed for the site of the Urumqi Trade Fair, where staff was evacuated. Protesters pushed and shoved police and a few in the crowd were beaten, said resident Zhao Jianzhuang. A Han, Zhao said he joined the demonstrators at a downtown intersection where they were blocked by riot police from marching on People's Square 1 mile (1.6 kilometers away).
The mostly Han demonstrators seemingly took care not to rile ethnic grievances, calling out "maintain ethnic unity" and venting their anger on local officials. They called for the ouster of Xinjiang party secretary Wang Lequan, an ally of President Hu Jintao.
Trying to head off trouble, Wang and the Urumqi party secretary Li Zhi separately talked to the demonstrators, who called for better police protection and demanded they step down, an editor at a local newspaper said, requesting his name not be used because he works for the government.
"Am I that silly? Do I not know that I should protect my brothers and sisters?" Li told them, according to footage the editor said was aired on Urumqi's TV station.
The official Xinhua News Agency confirmed the protest, saying people assembled at several places, including more than 1,000 in the central residential area of Xiaoximen, to demand a "security guarantee" from authorities after the syringe attacks.
Protests have become a spiraling concern for Chinese leaders, with tens of thousands annually and growing larger and more violent in recent years. Fueled by local grievances over corruption, widening income gaps and mismanagement, they challenge the legitimacy of a government that has promised to deliver social fairness. Beijing has so far sought only piecemeal, rather than systematic remedies, calling on officials to be honest public servants, ease social tensions and not use force.
"If you try to deal with demonstrators, that is one thing, that's a security concern. But on the other hand, you really have to find social measures to make sure there is not further anger among residents," said Bo Zhiyue, a China politics expert at National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute.
Troubles in Xinjiang are magnified by ethnic resentments. The Uighurs, an ethnic Muslim group that sees the region as its homeland, complain about being displaced by the Han, who have poured into the area in recent years. The Han resent government affirmative action policies for official jobs and university spots given to Uighurs.
At the first word of trouble Thursday, tensions spiked in the traditional Uighur neighborhood near Urumqi's Grand Bazaar.
"Earlier, a lot of people ran over saying 'something's happened, something's happened,' so I quickly closed my shop and rushed home," said a Uighur woman. She did not want to give her name for fear of government reprisals.
Thursday is the 15th day of the seventh lunar month — an important day when Han Chinese honor the dead by inviting them back for meals. The date may have been cause for agitation as most of the victims in the July violence were Han Chinese.
Zhao, the Chinese demonstrator, said anger was stoked by a perceived delay in trials for those arrested over the July riot as well as by the syringe stabbings.
"This is communal violence and people are frustrated because over 200 people were killed and almost 1,700 were injured. And of course you have friends, relatives and children who were attacked. So the people are not happy," said Bo, the politics expert.