Party bosses push reset button with Uygurs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2011, 12:00am

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Two years on from riots and mass arrests in the restive western region of Xinjiang, the authorities have launched a public relations campaign with pledges to boost the region's development.

But an international human rights organisation claims that Beijing has continued to silence those speaking out on abuses during and after the unrest.

In a show of ethnic harmony, Xinjiang's party chief paid a high-profile visit to night markets in the regional capital Urumqi on Monday, while its governor pledged to boost the region's economic development, state media reported.

Pictures in newspapers and video on news websites showed Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian talking, toasting and tossing back beers with hawkers and locals at two night markets in Urumqi on Monday night.

Zhang is known for implementing a soft approach in dealing with the Uygurs, the largest of several ethnic groups in the region, who generally resent what they see is discrimination by the dominant Han Chinese who are moving to the region in large numbers.

On July 5, 2009, frustrated Uygurs went on a rampage through the streets of Urumqi, attacking Han Chinese civilians. The government said at least 197 people were killed and more than 1,600 injured in the riots, most of them Han Chinese. Overseas Uygur groups say an unknown number of Uygurs were wounded or killed by security forces.

Zhang was named the region's party secretary in April last year, replacing Wang Lequan, a hardliner who held the post for 15 years, in a move that analysts said paved the way for a new development strategy for the remote region.

Since Zhang's appointment, the central government has pledged to spend billions of yuan and introduce preferential policies to hasten Xinjiang's development, as the leadership struggles to keep a lid on ethnic tensions.

In a meeting on Monday, Xinjiang government chairman Nur Bekri said the region will be opened further to foreign investment and trade.

Bekri said the government will promote Xinjiang's foreign trade and economic co-operation with neighbouring countries, establish special economic zones and attract domestic and foreign investors, China News Service reported.

At last year's central work conference on Xinjiang, chaired by President Hu Jintao and attended by political leaders from across the mainland, the central government said it wanted the region to achieve 'leaps-and-bounds development'. Beijing also said it wanted the region to serve as the 'bridgehead of China's opening-up policy to the West'.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International said yesterday that hundreds of people were detained and prosecuted since the riots.

Several dozen had been executed and hundreds more were serving lengthy prison terms or had been detained for long periods.

Managers of well-known Uygur websites and journalists had been jailed for involvement in posting messages announcing the protests or for talking to foreign media, it said.

'The government is not only still muzzling people who speak out about July 2009, it is using its influence outside its borders to shut them up,' said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director.

Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei yesterday rejected Amnesty International's charge.

'Different ethnic groups in the region enjoy various rights to an unprecedented extent,' he said.