Today marks the 8th anniversary of the July 5th Urumqi riots/incident/massacre (depending on where you get your news from). I remember waking up to the news as it happened – my mum had just moved to a different country (a month before the rest of us followed) so I was at my grandfather’s or aunt’s with my dad. Reports were slowly pouring in and it wasn’t too long before I realised this was something big; this was not just the regular news of small disturbances or quickly-quelled attacks; this was going to have a large scale impact. I had just started blogging that year and it was the first time I blogged about anything political. In my own 15 year-old’s words:
For the last couple of months, hundreds of Uyghur workers were forcibly taken to Guang Dong to work in Xuri toy factory for cheap labour. On June 25th a brawl between the workers and the local Han Chinese broke out that killed 2 and injured 118 (according to Chinese media). According to other sources, more than 50 had died. This brawl had come about after a “disgruntled” former worker had started a rumour saying that some of the Uyghur workers had raped 2 Chinese females. This was soon proven false, but the results were the same.
On June 5th, thousands of Uyghur people, mainly students, came out to protest in Urumqi about what happened in Guang Dong. It was meant to be peaceful – they were even carrying Chinese flags instead of Uyghur flags. The government’s response was force. They deployed at least 20,000 armed police to stop the protest with brute force. Official death toll is just above 150, but other reports claim thousands of Uyghur people died. Then the local Han Chinese, thinking that the Uyghurs had killed their Chinese people, came out to kill more Uyghur people, vowing revenge.
The Chinese troops went in to a lot of Uyghur homes to take away the men under “suspicion”. Many men who hadn’t even gone to the protest were also taken away.
This injustice sparked more protests all over Eastern Turkistan. Women in Kashgar came out to protest, saying that the government had taken away their husbands and sons. Now there are thousands of armed troops in cities such as Urumqi, Ghulja, Kashgar, Hotan, Karmay and other cities. They have been told to shoot anyone who looks “suspicious”, and will not be charged if they kill anyone. Many people are afraid to leave their homes. No electricity or water, as they’ve been cut off. Communication to outside of China is near impossible.
The rest of the world though, have heard. We in Australia protested in Adelaide, Sydney and Canberra, with officials such as Kris Hannah, Tony Zappia, Libby Hogarth and Tibetan spokespersons giving speeches. In Canberra you could see the Chinese people hiding behind their curtains and taking pictures in their embassy, not showing their faces. There was even this Chinese guy who came out to protest with us.
Protests have been going on for days in places like California, Washington DC, Turkey, Netherlands, and Sweden, among other countries. We hope the rest of the world can help us too.
I forget that 15 year olds can be aware of things, despite being an aware 15 year old myself… children are smarter than they look. Gotta give them credit sometimes…
Back then it wasn’t even called the “July 5th incident”. The following year, articles like this came out describing eye witness accounts to make some sense of what happened. I will attempt to expand on what I have learnt of the event 8 years since. Note: I will be quoting numbers but they are mostly from Chinese sources which are usually drastically understated:
- The protest occurred in response to the deaths of 2 Uyghurs in Guangdong, killed by a mob of Chinese who falsely claimed that Uyghur workers had sexually assaulted two Han women
- The protest started peacefully on July 5th but turned violent
- The Chinese government claim the violence was pre-planned and masterminded by Uyghurs outside of the country, like Rebiya Kadeer and the WUC
- Uyghurs say the violence occurred in response to the excessive force deployed by the Chinese government in response to the peaceful protest (stating they started to fire their guns first)
- The WUC claim no involvement, instead stating there may have been agents provocateurs within the crowds
- Police used batons, live ammunition, tasers, tear gas and water hoses to disperse the rioters, and set up roadblocks and posted armoured vehicles throughout the city
- By July 7th, officials reported that 1,434 suspected rioters had been arrested. Personal account state that police took men from their homes indiscriminately, whether they were involved in the protests or not:
Rebiya Kadeer claimed that “nearly 10,000 people” had gone missing overnight. Human Rights Watch(HRW) later documented 43 cases of Uyghur men who disappeared after being taken away by Chinese security forces in large-scale sweeps of Uyghur neighbourhoods overnight on 6–7 July, and said that this was likely to be “just the tip of the iceberg”; HRW allege that young men, mostly in their 20s, had been unlawfully arrested and have not been seen or heard from as of 20 October 2009
- Women in the hundreds came out to protest these arrests on the 7th July
- Han Chinese also came out to protest “in revenge” on the 7th July in Urumqi and caused more violence, attacking and killing groups of Uyghurs
- By July 10th, all but 2 mosques had been closed in Urumqi. This resulted in another protest where the Chinese detained “another 5 or 6 people”
- The last official update on July 18th placed the tally at 197 dead, 1,721 injured. The WUC claims the death toll was around 600
- By August:
Over 300 more people were reported arrested. According to the BBC, the total number of arrests in connection with the riots was over 1,500. The Financial Times estimated that the number was higher, citing an insider saying that some 4,000 arrests had already taken place by mid July, and that Ürümqi’s prisons were so full that newly arrested people were being held in a People’s Liberation Army warehouse.
According to the Uyghur American Association, several other Uyghur journalists and bloggers were also detained after the riots; one of them, journalist Gheyret Niyaz, was later sentenced to 15 years in prison for having spoken to foreign media. In the most high-profile case, Ilham Tohti, an ethnic Uyghur economist at Minzu University of China, was arrested two days after the riots over his criticisms of the Xinjiang government.
- Mobile/telephone services were cut for months afterwards, and internet and international calls in the region was not restored for almost a year, until May 14th 2010
- In early August, the Ürümqi government announced that 83 individuals had been “officially” arrested in connection with the riots. China Daily reported in late August that over 200 people were being charged and that trials would begin by the end of August. Although this was denied both by a provincial and a local Party official, Xinjiang authorities later announced that arrest warrants had been issued to 196 suspects, of which 51 had already been prosecuted. Police also requested that the procuratorate approve the arrest of a further 239 people, and detention of 825 more, China Daily said. In early December, 94 “fugitives” were arrested.
- Around mid-August to September, syringe attacks were apparently perpetrated by Uyghurs on Hans (although evidence is weird??)
- On September 3rd, thousands of Han came out to protest and at least 5 people were killed. 3 Hong Kong journalists were attacked and detained by paramilitary police for filming
- By October:
14,000 security personnel were deployed in Ürümqi from 11 October, and the next day a Xinjiang court sentenced six men to death, and one to life imprisonment, for their roles in the riots. All six men were Uyghurs, and were found guilty of murder, arson and robbery during the riots. Foreign media said the sentences appeared to be aimed at mollifying the anger of the Han majority; the WUC denounced the verdict as “political”, and said there was no desire to see justice served. Human Rights Watch said that there were “serious violations of due process” at the trials of 21 defendants relating to July protests. It said the trials “did not meet minimum international standards of due process and fair trials” – specifically, it said that the trials were carried out in a single day without prior public notice, that the defendants’ choice of lawyers was restricted, and that the Party had given judges instructions on how to handle the cases.
- As schools opened in September, they were guarded by heavily armed police. From personal accounts, many Han and Uyghur students were sent/moved to their respective schools for fear of the other. Uyghur students were made to go through bag checks to make sure they were not carrying weapons, and generally discriminated against in similar ways
- By January 2010 there were still police patrolling the streets at least 5 or 6 times a day
- By February 2010 there were at least 26 official executions, although it should be noted that the Chinese media often understates these figures
- By July 2010 at least 40,000 surveillance cameras were installed in Urumchi
- To this day there are still people missing after being taken by the police. They have not been accounted for through official reports. According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project: (click on link for more sources)
“The unrest in Urumchi changed the lives of Uyghurs. The use of live fire on Uyghur protestors sent a clear message the Chinese state has run out of solutions to legitimate Uyghur grievances. Since 2009, we have witnessed tighter controls on religion, loss in status of the Uyghur language, suppression of rights to free speech, association, and assembly, as well as accelerated economic discrimination and marginalization,” said UHRP Director, Omer Kanat.
Mr. Kanat added: “However, for the families of Uyghurs disappeared by Chinese security forces in sweeps of Uyghur neighborhoods after the 2009 unrest, there is a personal loss that cannot be reconciled without transparency from China. It is the responsibility of the international community to speak out for these Uyghur families and tell China it should disclose details of their loved ones’ cases.”
On July 5, 2009, Uyghurs peacefully assembled in People’s Square in Urumchi to protest government inaction over a deadly attack on Uyghur factory workers in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province. The details of what happened that day, and over the following months, have been unclear. What is known is that the city erupted into unprecedented unrest that resulted in the deaths of an unknown number of people. Reports issued by Amnesty International and the Uyghur Human Rights Project described eyewitness accounts of state security forces firing on peaceful Uyghur protestors.
In the eight years since the unrest questions remain over enforced disappearances of Uyghurs. A report issued by Human Rights Watch in October 2009 documented large-scale sweep operations conducted by security forces in two predominantly Uyghur areas of Urumchi beginning July 6. Human Rights Watch’s report recorded enforced disappearances of 43 Uyghur men. Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called the documented disappearances the “tip of the iceberg.”
In an article dated May 14, 2012, Radio Free Asia described how 36 Uyghur families had come forward with accounts of missing family members since the July 5, 2009 protest. The report on the 36 missing Uyghurs followed a Radio Free Asia article dated May 11, 2012 describing the disappearance of Imammemet Eli. Eli’s mother, Patigul, told Radio Free Asia reporters her son was detained on July 14, 2009 and the last information she had on his condition was obtained nine months after his arrest. For her persistent questioning of Chinese authorities regarding her son’s fate, Patigul was detained for two years. Further troubling aspects of state security actions post-July 5, 2009 are reports of minors arbitrarily detained, tortured, sentenced, or simply disappeared.
Not much has changed since. Every person I know who has gone back there since these events have said they have been harassed by security and have had their IDs, travel permits, bags and phones checked multiple times as more and more security checkpoints were been set up over the years. The region is only becoming more and more of a police state, with soldiers posted basically everywhere.
Annual protests in other countries have been held ever since to remember those who died and those who have disappeared, and to voice our concerns of the resulting policies the government has implemented to force “harmony”. The Chinese government has yet to account for all the questions that have risen from these events. Instead, various officials have been replaced by Party members who are enacting much more stringent security measures and oppressive policies. I outline some of these policies in my article: I Am Uyghur and I Will Protest.
Is there something we can do other than protest and lobby foreign governments? Can we do something other than online activism? In this political climate it all seems a little hopeless. But don’t lose hope. Remember. Remember what happened and who we are. Be vocal. Pray. Nothing lasts forever.