|China struggles to keep lid on ethnic unrest after riots |
BY MICHAEL A. LEV
Mon, Nov. 01, 2004
ZHONGMOU COUNTY, China -(KRT) - An ethnic Muslim Chinese man lay in a hospital Monday, beaten into semi-consciousness during sectarian riots that killed at least seven people, injured dozens and hinted at the potential for broad social chaos that lurks beneath the surface of this tightly controlled country.
"They came after me with a shovel," the man said in a whisper about his ethnic Chinese attackers, who left him with a serious head injury, an eye swelled shut and deep bruises on his shoulder and abdomen.
The deadly violence, between groups of the Han majority and Muslim Hui minority, took place over several days beginning Wednesday in Henan province in central China. The riots apparently involved rampages by hundreds or thousands of people, but the full scope of the incident was impossible to ascertain because martial law has been declared in the area and police checkpoints prevented outsiders from entering.
Several thousand police and military were patrolling the area Monday, and at the local hospital at least 15 guards tried to keep visitors away. Foreign correspondents were detained at roadblocks or tracked down at their hotels and prevented from continuing to report.
The state-run media suppressed news of the incident until Monday evening when the official Xinhua news agency reported that seven people were dead and 42 injured in the violence. The unrest apparently intensified as Hui from the surrounding region heard rumors of the conflict and converged on the town of Langchenggang. The Xinhua report was carried by its English language service; the domestic news blackout remained in effect.
The government said rioting broke out after members of two unidentified families from separate villages became involved in a heated traffic dispute.
"Afterward, residents of both villages assembled with weapons," the Xinhua report said. "One villager was beaten to death on the spot and two died in the hospital one day later." It said 18 people have been arrested.
In China, an authoritarian state ruled by the Communist Party, the top priority of the leadership is to maintain its hold on power, and its great fear is being toppled by popular revolt.
The government's strategy is to keep the public focused on economic development, but in an unevenly prospering country of 1.3 billion people where there are no checks and balances on the party's iron-clad rule, fissures appear constantly.
The list of aggrieved groups who occasionally lash out at the system include farmers who bridle under heavy tax loads, unemployed workers who are cheated out of their severance pay and poor villagers whose land has been usurped for new real estate projects. Public demonstrations and riots have become common, while ethnic and religious conflict also flair up occasionally.
The government fears China's angry and dispirited finding a way to link up in opposition, so the party spends a significant amount of energy and money on a vast security apparatus to tamp down unrest and prevent the disgruntled from organizing. News of rioting is almost always suppressed or its release delayed.
There are generally considered to be few problems between the 90 percent majority Han population and the 6 percent of Chinese who are Hui, but the potential for conflict exists in a society where the government controls rather than promotes religious belief. The Hui, who look Chinese but are descendents of Muslim traders and travelers from centuries ago, say they sometimes feel stigmatized for their beliefs because only a small percentage of Chinese practice religion.
The Communist Party officially disdains religion and requires that Christian and Muslim groups submit to state authority. Mosques are under direct government control, but adults not working for the state are free to practice religion. Children, however, are not permitted to attend religious school.
When news of the violence spread by telephone to surrounding communities, hundreds, maybe thousands, of Muslim men tried to get to Langchenggang by car and bus to defend their people.
They traveled in a convoy of cars and vans, but most were turned back by the police, said a man, who is not identified out of fears for his safety. Others said the police are preventing Muslims from traveling to the region by bus from the provincial capital of Zhengzhou.
Some Muslim men said Monday that they traveled to the area of the rioting only to show support and to compel the government to restore order.
© 2004, Chicago Tribune.