July 5, 2009: The riots that changed everything in Xinjiang

Society & Culture

In Urumqi on July 5, 2009, a Uyghur protest against racism and mistreatment turned into a riot, resulting in crowds attacking Han Chinese. The state's response — which is still ongoing — was not proportionate.

Photo by Nir Elias, Reuters

This Week in China’s History: July 5, 2009

In Chinese, when an event reaches a certain scale or significance it becomes known simply by its date, expressed as two numbers: month, day. What in English is the Mukden or Manchurian Incident is in Chinese the “9-18 Incident.” The Tiananmen Square Massacre is 6-4 (and sometimes 5-35, to avoid censors). And the May Fourth Movement is, well, 5-4. Double 10, 12-9, 5-30…these simple combinations of numbers all evoke specific references and a long historical context.

One of the more recent events to achieve this dubious distinction took place in 2009. Starting on July 5 of that year, death, destruction, and repression overwhelmed the Xinjiang capital Urumqi. Tania Branigan, reporting for the Guardian, described the scene: “In the capital, burnt-out buildings and vehicles were still smouldering in the area around the grand bazaar, where violence broke out. Bloodstains marked the road, along with sprays of broken glass and odd shoes, abandoned by their owners as they fled.”

The immediate background to the Seven-Five Incident began far from Xinjiang, in the Guangdong city of Shaoguan. Centuries earlier, Shaoguan had been the site of Jesuit Matteo Ricci’s first mission on the mainland, but in 2009 it was one of many light industrial coastal cities in need of labor. Migrant workers came from across the People’s Republic, including, by the spring of 2009, about 800 Uyghurs who took jobs in a toy factory alongside some 16,000 Han Chinese. In a story sadly familiar, the Uyghurs in Shaoguan were seen first as exotic, then as suspicious, and finally as threatening. Accusations of rudeness and petty crime soon escalated. In late June, an anonymous internet post accused six Uyghur men of raping two Chinese girls.

The accusations sparked violence. In the early morning hours of June 26, arguments and then fights broke out in the Xuri Toy Company dormitories. Reporting for the New York Times, Andrew Jacobs describes a “ four-hour melee” in which “Han and Uighur workers bludgeoned one another with fire extinguishers, paving stones and lengths of steel shorn from bed frames.” It took 400 armed police to end the riot.”

Officially, two Uyghurs were killed, although some Uyghur groups assert the number is higher. More than a hundred people were injured, most of them Uyghurs, some seriously.

The rape accusation turned out to be false: investigating authorities determined that a Xuri employee had fabricated the rumor to retaliate against the company for not rehiring him. Another story suggested that a Chinese woman’s scream, upon mistakenly entering a dorm room of Uyghur men, was taken as proof of the rumor.

In far-off Urumqi, where concern about the wellbeing of migrant laborers was longstanding, the Chinese authorities’ investigation rang hollow. There, the Uyghur community saw the Shaoguan episode as illustrating a system that compelled Uyghurs to seek work far from home, sometimes involuntarily, and often amid poor living conditions and low pay. Endemic racism against Uyghurs made the violence at Shaoguan extreme, but not unusual. Uyghurs in Xinjiang began mobilizing. Protests against racism and mistreatment began on the evening of July 5, centered around Urumqi’s Grand Bazaar.

Though protests began peacefully, with calls for justice for the Uyghurs killed and injured in Guangdong and an end to exploitative practices, they quickly became violent. What happened next was one of the most important inflection points in Xinjiang’s history.

State television showed what appeared to be crowds of Uyghurs attacking Han Chinese with clubs, cleavers, knives, and rocks. Dozens of cars and trucks burned and about two-thirds of the official casualties were Han Chinese. Most of the casualties had been stabbed or beaten. The official reports were that nearly 200 people died in violence on July 5, and it seems clear that the violence was initially, as Xinhua reported, by Uyghurs directed at Han Chinese. Chinese authorities contended that the violence had been planned from abroad, orchestrated by exiled businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer, though there was no evidence to support this charge.

This is, for the most part, the official version of 7-5: protests turned into horrible violence against Han residents and their property. Some Uyghurs — maybe several dozen — were killed in the fighting as well, before police swept in to restore order. This story is not wrong, but it is not complete.

In the days that followed, Chinese authorities and Han residents of Urumqi responded.

Armed police moved in aggressively, opening fire on crowds of Uyghurs. Once these initial waves of violence were halted, many Han in the city sought retribution, often with the support of the police. The World Uyghur Congress — which the Chinese government blamed for inciting the event — contends that nearly 600 people died on July 5 — three times the official version — most of which were Uyghur. Witnesses reported hearing gunfire, and many hospitals were treating gunshot wounds, suggesting that these were victims of the armed police, some 1,000 of whom took to the streets to disperse the protests.

The government declared the unrest to be bàoluàn 暴乱 — “riots” or “chaos” — which was the same label as the 1989 Tiananmen protests. The protests in Urümqi had indeed turned riotous, but the designation justified an almost unlimited level of response. In the days that followed, roles were reversed as Han residents roamed the city seeking out and attacking Uyghurs. Police supported and sometimes participated in the reprisals. As one witness told Darren Byler, writing for SupChina, “on the days following 7/5, hundreds of Han people smashed Uyghur restaurants. The local police came carrying their guns. But when they saw that it was Han people doing it they just went back to their stations.”

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Uyghurs were taken by police. Authorities detained some formally; others were simply disappeared. Ilham Tohti, who would later receive a life sentence for treason, was among those arrested in those July days.

Even more shocking is the likely death toll. Since official reports stopped counting after July 5, most of the violence — especially violence against Uyghurs — is not included. One of Byler’s informants makes a chilling claim: “Many people were killed. The highest number of people killed might be 7,000, but most (local Xinjiang Han) people like me think it was more like three or four thousand. The government just says it was a little less than 200. Most of the people who were killed were just shot by the police. It wasn’t often even clear if they were part of (the protests) or not.”

But even if the highest estimates are right, thousands of deaths are just the start. July 5, 2009 was not the start of tension between Uyghurs and either Han Chinese or the Chinese state, but it is clear that those events marked a change: the policies of repression and cultural and physical violence that have defined China in Xinjiang for the last decade can trace their roots back to what happened that July.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.