URUMQI, China (Reuters) - The government in China’s far western city of Urumqi ordered shops to close on Monday, sending new rumors through the city despite calls for calm after reported syringe attacks that inflamed ethnic tension.
Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang region, has been struggling to return to order after days of panic and protests over claims that Muslim Uighurs used syringes to attack residents, especially members of China’s Han ethnic Chinese majority.
Five people were killed last week when thousands of protesters demanded the resignation of Xinjiang’s veteran Communist Party chief. Nearly 200 people, mostly Han Chinese, died in July protests by Uighurs in Urumqi.
On Monday, a shopping mall manager said businesses in the city center had received an afternoon call from government offices abruptly ordering them to close by 6 pm. Streets emptied and buses were packed as shops shut and people scurried home.
No reason was given for the closure, but the order sparked a rash of new rumors of unrest. The city’s new Party secretary, Zhu Hailun, called for stability and a new focus on improving prospects for poor residents.
“We must control the current situation. We absolutely cannot have a recurrence or spreading (of unrest),” Zhu said in remarks reported on Monday in national media.
“We will severely punish those responsible for the July 5 riots, investigate and try them quickly, to give the people an answer and satisfy them.”
A crowd of Han Chinese gathered east of Urumqi’s Uighur district in the afternoon, but troops kept them from beating up a Uighur after another reported needle stabbing, reporters said.
A notice from law-and-order authorities late on Sunday warned residents they faced possible jail terms for rumor-mongering.
“Those who deliberately concoct and spread false information about innocent members of the public being stabbed with needles” could be tried and sentenced to up to five years in jail, Xinhua news agency quoted the notice as saying.
Anyone convicted of injecting others with dangerous substances could face a long prison term or even the death penalty, it said.
The government has portrayed the alleged syringe attacks as a separatist plot by Uighurs, who call Xinjiang their homeland. Many Uighurs resent government controls on their religion and culture, as well as the growing presence of ethnic Han Chinese.
Officials gave no details on how the five deaths occurred last week in protests by Han Chinese demanding greater security.
Security forces fired tear gas to break up a crowd of Han Chinese on Sunday after a fresh needle scare near a market. Witnesses said three Uighurs were severely beaten.
Pledges to punish rumor-mongering appeared to be a further
effort to restore authority in Urumqi after demonstrators last week noisily demanded the removal of Wang Lequan, Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang for 14 years.
In China, Communist Party secretaries are the most powerful officials at each level of government.
Wang appears likely to survive the tumult for now at least, though the city’s party head and the regional police chief were dismissed.
Some Han Chinese residents were still not satisfied.
“I felt the government should have been able to control the situation very well. But in reality, the situation is not under control,” said an Urumqi resident identifying himself as Feng.
Four suspects indicted so far face lesser charges of endangering public security, cases that do not appear to indicate any organization or ulterior motive.
They included two drug users accused of trying to rob a taxi driver, a man who resisted arrest while apparently preparing to inject drugs and a man who jabbed a fruit seller with a needle.
China’s top police official, Meng Jianzhu, said there was more than petty crime behind the trouble.
“This is a struggle between separatism and anti-separatism, between wrecking ethnic unity and protecting ethnic unity,” Meng said in comments reported by the official Legal Daily on Monday.
Additional reporting by Tan Ee Lyn; Writing by Chris Buckley and Lucy Hornby, Editing by Ron Popeski