Ethnic Unrest in China's Wild West
August 2009

by Adam Dean

Having witnessed the efficiency with which the Chinese government locked down the Greater Tibetan area after the riots in Lhasa last year, I was as surprised as anybody by their openness to the media following the appalling ethnic violence in Urumqi on July 5.

© Adam Dean
A Han Chinese mob chases down a Uighur man in Urumqi, China, on July 8, 2009. They caught up with him and beat him until the police intervened, firing shots into the air.
Perhaps the Chinese state propaganda departments had learned something from their media mismanagement of the Tibetan riots and the negative coverage it generated in contrast to the global sympathy garnered when they allowed foreign media relatively free reign to cover the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake.

In either case I think most of the seasoned Beijing foreign correspondents were shocked to receive e-mails inviting them to Urumqi to report on the devastation when the fires of burned-out busses were still smoldering and the blood on the street was barely dry.

By cutting the Internet in Urumqi in all but one hotel, the authorities successfully corralled the foreign press corps into one place where they provided daily briefings and bussed correspondents into the worst-effected areas whilst simultaneously shutting down text messaging, international phone connections in the city and access to Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites nationwide. They clearly weren't going to make the same mistake as the Iranian authorities.

© Adam Dean
Policemen arrest a Han Chinese man who was part of a mob that chased down a Uighur man in Urumqi, China, on July 8, 2009. They beat him until the police intervened, firing shots into the air and arresting the two Han Chinese attackers.
Despite this media control it was relatively easy to work the streets as a photographer in the days after the riots. There was still a sense of palpable tension in the city. The streets were virtually empty apart from the massive police and military presence. Shops and homes were shuttered up, broken glass and burned-out vehicles littered the streets and an 8 p.m. curfew was in place. People you passed, both Han and Uighur, had their heads down and avoided eye contact.

In the Uighur neighborhoods, specialist armed police units supported with armored vehicles had blocked off streets as they conducted operations to arrest some of the 1,400 Uighurs detained in the days after the riots.

On the day I arrived a large Han Chinese crowd had gathered outside a hospital in the city center, close to the media hotel, where riot police had blocked off the roads.

© Adam Dean
Policemen in Urumqi, China, arrest a Han Chinese man who was part of a mob that was beating an Uighur man until police intervened and arrested two of the attackers. The mob then turned on the police.
Suddenly the crowd started shouting, running and chasing a Uighur man. They caught him and beat him with sticks. As he sprinted off again with a large mob in pursuit, I followed and photographed as the police intervened with their weapons drawn and prevented the Han mob from killing him as had reportedly happened in the days before. The mob then turned on the police for arresting one of the Han attackers forcing the police to fire their guns into the air to try to disperse the crowd. The crowd then turned its attention on me and another foreign reporter. Thankfully, the riot police dragged us through their lines to safety before things got out of hand.

The following day I visited one of the hospitals where I saw firsthand the results of the violence inflicted on both sides. A young Han Chinese woman, Dong Yuanyuan, 24, was dragged from a bus whilst on a honeymoon with her husband. She was beaten unconscious and left for dead. Her husband is still missing, presumed dead. Aliya, 5, a young Uighur girl, was beaten on the head when she and her pregnant mother were attacked.

Things seem to have reached a state of calm now in Urumqi, mainly due to the thousands of troops on the streets. The question is: how long will the quiet status quo last once the media and military leave the Han and Uighur communities to their own devices?

© Adam Dean

Adam Dean is a freelance photographer based in Beijing, China, and represented by Panos Pictures in London. His work has been published in many of the leading news publications including Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone magazine, Stern, Le Figaro magazine, Internazionale, The Sunday Times Magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, Le Figaro, etc. His work has been shown at the Visa Pour l'Image Festival in Perpignan, France, exhibited at The Ian Parry Scholarship print exhibition at the Getty Images Gallery in London and at the Luis Valtuena International Humanitarian Photography Award Exhibition across Europe. Recent prizes include SAJA Awards, 2008 (South Asian Journalists Association); SOPA Awards, 2008 (Society for Publishers in Asia), and The Press Photographer's Year (2009).


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