China’s crackdown on Muslim protesters in the western province of Xinjiang took an even more ominous turn Wednesday as a Communist Party official vowed to execute those responsible for the deadly riots.
A Chinese Embassy spokesman in Washington told The Washington Times that more than 1,000 people have been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the unrest, which has left at least 156 dead and 1,080 injured, according to an official count.
“These people are being investigated, and the relevant Chinese department will deal with criminal suspects according to the law,” Wang Baodong said.
In the provincial capital of Urumqi, Communist Party chief Li Zhi told a televised news conference that students were among those arrested.
“To those who committed crimes with cruel means, we will execute them,” Mr. Li said, according to an Associated Press report. He added that government forces would crack down on any security risk.
Public Security Minister Meng Jiangzhu was quoted by the official Xinhua news agency as saying that “key rioters should be punished with the utmost severity.”
Uighurs and Han Chinese roamed the streets of Urumqi on Wednesday, clashing repeatedly as the government swamped the area with troops. Although no new casualties were reported, human rights groups and Uighur organizations said the death toll in clashes over the weekend is much higher than the official tally.
The unrest prompted Chinese President Hu Jintao to cut short a trip to Italy for a Group of Eight summit.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the Obama administration is “deeply concerned” about the situation in Xinjiang and called on all parties there to exercise restraint.
However, some rights groups and Uighurs have asked for a tougher U.S. stance.
“We haven’t yet seen a very coherent statement out of the Obama administration on how it is going to discuss human rights in China. We are six months in, we have had some major incidents and it is not helpful that the administration has not been clear yet on how it is going to raise these issues,” said Sophie Richardson, Washington-based advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton dropped in on a meeting between Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, Mr. Kelly said. He said the unrest in Xinjiang “did come up” during the meeting but that he did not have a “full readout” of the conversation.
The protests in Xinjiang appear to have begun peacefully Sunday as a march in Urumqi by students demonstrating against the deaths of two Uighur toy factory workers in southern China last month.
That the demonstrations deteriorated into clashes reflected long-standing tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese, who dominate Urumqi and appear to have benefited more from economic modernization in Xinjiang, a region rich in natural resources.
Alim Seytoff, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, accused the Chinese government of targeting Uighurs in the crackdown.
“As far as we know, all the 1,400 people arrested so far are Uighurs,” he said.
Chinese officials have not provided an ethnic breakdown of those killed or arrested. Mr. Wang said the dead are being identified and the government will soon issue a list.
Mr. Seytoff expressed concern over Mr. Li’s promise to execute people.
“China’s judicial process is not transparent,” he said. “They will try to intimidate Uighurs by executing people just for participating in the protests. They will use this opportunity to try to teach Uighurs a lesson, just as they did to the Tibetans” after unrest in Tibet last year.
Roseann Rife, Amnesty Internationals deputy director for the Asia-Pacific region, called on the authorities in Urumqi to release those arrested “solely for peacefully expressing their views and exercising their freedom of expression, association and assembly.”
“A fair and thorough investigation must be launched resulting in fair trials that are in accordance with international standards without recourse to the death penalty,” she said.
Chinese officials accuse U.S.-based Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uighur businesswoman and political leader, of masterminding the unrest. She spent six years in detention in China until efforts by the Bush administration, Congress and rights groups helped secure her release in 2005.
“It is a basic fact that Rebiya Kadeer and her likes masterminded this rioting in Urumqi,” Mr. Wang said.
Chinese Embassy officials have briefed the State Department on the developments, and Mr. Wang said he hoped the United States now has “a better understanding of the violence that took place … and refrains from taking any action that may be made use of by Uighur separatist forces in the U.S. and in China.”
Ms. Richardson of Human Rights Watch said the Chinese government’s attempts to blame Mrs. Kadeer for the violence were similar to its efforts to pin the blame for last year’s unrest in Tibet on the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans’ exiled spiritual leader. “I think it’s a formula that Beijing has decided works and they find that it works particularly well with a domestic audience,” she said.
Walter Lohman, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, said the Chinese accusations are a way of ignoring the “real problem.”
Human rights groups say the Chinese government has trampled on the rights and religious freedoms of Uighurs, preventing them from praying at weddings, fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and even confiscating their passports so they cannot go on the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
The protests are seen as a consequence of such policies. “That they are going to be subjected to persecution because they protested is, at least from the Chinese political calculus, the only logical outcome,” Ms. Richardson said.
“Even had these protests not taken place, the Chinese government would have continued to use repressive policies in Xinjiang. This certainly gives them more of a pretext,” she added.
Reps. Bill Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat, and Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, urged Mrs. Clinton to unambiguously condemn the Chinese governments crackdown.
“If indeed there has been a massacre of Uighurs, I would hope that you demand to know who is responsible,” they wrote in a letter made available to The Times.