Images from Tuesday Urumqi Demonstrations

The first wave of Uyghur actions in Urumqi on Sunday evening brought at least a thousand people, mostly young Uyghur men, probably members of Urumqi’s small middle class, into the streets. They occupied public spaces and shouted, “God is great!” Over 150 perished, with some journalists estimating around 30 Uyghurs and 120 members of other ethnic groups. Over 1400 have since been detained by police.

Tuesday morning, hundreds of Uyghurs staged a protest in downtown Urumqi just as Chinese authorities were taking journalists on a “tour” of the Uyghur neighborhood. Many claimed to be the mothers, wives, and sisters of the detained young Uyghurs, and they wailed for their kin. They waved the ID cards of the detained men. In the end, around a hundred found themselves cornered in a burned-out part of south Urumqi, surrounded by riot police with clubs and guns drawn.

The footage and photographs of this event have produced what will doubtless be enduring images of the most violent public conflict in the PRC since the Tian’anmen Square demonstrations in 1989. A young woman with a ponytail and a soccer jersey, a member of a proud generation of Uyghur girls, waved her finger in the helmeted faces of the People’s Armed Police. The “Tian’anmen” photograph of this event, however, is this picture, which has appeared in various forms on the front pages of Al Jazeera and Hürriyet and in the galleries of The New York Times, The Guardian, and goodness knows where else:

The same woman appears in a video clip from The Guardian, in which the Armed Police tanks before her… actually seem to be backing away.

This is not the quiet stillness with which an anonymous man stood before a tank on Tian’anmen Square, though the photographs make it look like it is. This is a different image, one that speaks of a hidden fury, a constant authority and power in the hands of tradition. This is an image that will appeal powerfully to the Muslim world. This picture tells a story of brave boys who righteously stood up, as young men do, and who were punished by non-Muslim occupiers. The image is a mother, the keeper of tradition, the one who educates religious and ethnic values and traditions into her children, looking out for those children, missing them, coming to find them when they have lost their way. Here, she chides and scolds the men who have taken her son away, and, in their stillness, they seem to fear her.

In reality, their commander certainly told them to hold their fire, to contain, not to attack. With media cameras all around, with tensions already extremely high, this was no time even to make arrests.

Furthermore, cracking down on a crowd of women, children, and old men would delegitimize police action. Anyone familiar with the politics of ethnic representation in Xinjiang will tell you: Minority groups are overwhelmingly represented in the media by women, children, and old men. Minority men are threatening to the majority, which can easily accept them as perpetrators of murder and mass destruction.

Politically, this seems extremely auspicious for the world’s awareness of Uyghur political, legal, and cultural issues. The initial riots could be dismissed as action by only a thousand or so people fitting a slim demographic in Urumqi: under 30, male, educated. Now we see everyone else: over 30, female, uneducated, religious, etc. If someone planned this entire event, then it was certainly very, very well staged. In the media, Uyghurs look unified, with the exception of the many Uyghur police officers working to halt the action. (I am not precluding, by the way, the possibility that this is more than a Uyghur protest! I have not seen any mention to the contrary, though I would be unsurprised to find at least Uzbeks and Tatars in the mix.)

I would note that the people in the videos of today’s Uyghur protests, especially the women, were almost all wearing headscarves. Uyghur women in Urumqi do not generally wear headscarves, though they almost universally own one or two for certain religious and social occasions. Those women who did not had their hair up, generally in pigtails, a modest style for young Uyghur women, à la Rebiya Kadeer. There are several possible reasons for this.

First, it could be that, in the aftermath of Sunday’s protest, the police rounded up not only many suspected participants, but any religious men they could find. That was the demographic that participated in the mäshräp groups, the government’s repression of which helped spark the Ghulja riots in 1997. This is the group that the government feels least able to co-opt, that it most wants to “educate,” as Urumqi Party Chairman Li Zhi threatened to do to demonstrators. As such, the women may be wearing headscarves anyway. The size of the demonstration also suggests that this was organized through preexisting social ties, as through the more religiously observant Uyghur community. Even if the participants were not necessarily religious, they would still identify as Muslims, making the headscarf a very visible symbol of unity, as well as difference from Han Chinese. I wonder if Uyghurs in Urumqi might begin more frequently to demonstrate their ethnicity and religion in their outward appearance.

Alternatively, if someone politically savvy planned this action, then they may have actually called on female participants to wear headscarves. The image of a crowd of apparently traditional Muslims facing down what looks like a faceless army of Chinese can draw on over a billion sympathizers. The concern here is that, while peaceful and charitable international Islamic organizations may pay more attention to the region, so will violent organizations that may see Xinjiang as a higher-profile arena than it previously was.

The last few days in Urumqi have produced a startling amount of both imagery and coverage from media outlets around the world. This is the moment, it seems, when Xinjiang may cease to be a journalistic oddity and exoticism and join, for better or for worse, the stock list of “restive” regions.

This piece was co-written with New Dominion author Sherin.

Selected sources:

Hürriyet: Sincan’da dehşet fotoğrafları

7 July 2009, Al Jazeera: Troops deployed in Uighur city

7 July 2009, The Guardian: Riots in Urumqi, China

7 July 2009, The New York Times: New Protests in Western China After Deadly Clashes

7 July 2009, The New York Times: Another Media Tour Goes Very, Very Badly for Chinese Authorities

Melissa K. Chan, Al Jazeera reporter in Urumqi

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Comments 23

  1. dawutjan wrote:

    You’re doing a great job with the commentary here, but I don’t think the speculation about the headscarves is really warranted. Plenty of women in Ürümchi wear headscarves these days, especially elderly women.

    Let’s not fall into some kind of orientalist “veilology” here, where women’s headwear becomes a code to be deciphered (lifted?) by western (non-Muslim) analysts. It just encourages sloppy thinking about the Muslim world.

    Posted 08 Jul 2009 at 7:04 am
  2. james wrote:

    I agree with Dawut – fanatstic coverage and commentary; but disagree with author re: headscarfs in Urumqi, when last there recently one thing that struck me was that many more Uyghur women from children to old agers were now wearing headscarfs than in previous years, especially around Erdaiqiao area. Not a criticism here; ‘veilology’ – interesting word. Certain western papers today carried photos of armed ‘Han’ vigilantes walking the streets in helmets, plain clothed, and unchallenged, seeking revenge. How could this be? The answer could be they were plain clothed security forces. If not, why are they allowed to walk the streets armed?

    Posted 08 Jul 2009 at 11:44 am
  3. PHE wrote:

    I was outraged seeing these photos put together with Han rioters weilding make-shift weapons. Victims in the riot were almost entirely Han. A student was beheaded, and his head was taken away by the Uyghurs, supposedly to put on show somewhere. A family of five was killed including adults, kids, and seniors. However, the gov is illogically protecting the murderers from Han’s retaliation and concealing info regarding the massacre of Han so only very few photos of what really happened in circulation. Oddly enough, when the media came, all of a sudden, the street’s full of weeping women of Uyghur origin crying for husbands and kids who initiated the genocide. Uyghurs have shifted their strategy to a guriller war avoiding surface streets and troops, attacking Han indiviuals in allies and homes. The images of Han weilding weapons on the street were taken when the gov failed to protect its very own citizens and when the innocents decide to defend themselves. Of course, you can call it retaliation, too. When your family is beaten to death by religious fanatics, you are not gonna sit still! Don’t ask me to list the sources. You can find sources of lies, but for the truth, you have to find out in Urumqi risking your life.

    Posted 08 Jul 2009 at 2:56 pm
  4. swan wrote:

    I was interested in your comment that many among the police were Uyghurs, can you tell me more about that?

    Posted 08 Jul 2009 at 4:14 pm
  5. Turan İnan wrote:


    There is a genocide which is worse and more violent than Hitler’s in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s capital of Urumqi. This genocide has been going on since 1965. There is one more genocide that has been seen in recent days, and in a few days, thousands of innocent people have been killed. According to the Chinese government’s own report, more than 800 people have been injured and 150 are dead, but the true number is more (+500 dead, +1000 injured)
    China has introduced this genocide as a public fight to hide their guilt and shame. In response to this, the government has blocked phones and internet connections so that they can easily continue their genocide.
    This is murder, and we want you to not close your eyes to what is happening, to stop these shameful actions. We are waiting for your reaction.

    Posted 08 Jul 2009 at 8:24 pm
  6. Turan İnan wrote:

    You see this easly on this video:

    Chinese are waiting for killing with iron baton, but Uighurs only demonstrating

    Posted 08 Jul 2009 at 8:42 pm
  7. alexis wrote:

    I’ve browsed through a good amount of videos and images recording this riot on internet. So far I havn’t seen one dead body of Uighur. All those whose face is identifiable is Han looking people, though I am prtty sure that there are Uighurs who were killed. And these videos and images include both foreign and domestic source. Can you explain this? (See this video taken by a Korean TV:

    Yes, one image of a Uighur women standing infront of a riot police car looking like Tank Man may rouse outrage in the West against Chinese authority or even Han Chinese in general. But the loved ones of those killed by mobs are looking at very different images. And really telling brutal images are largely abscent from western medias, as if those who were really killed are just auxiliary damages of ‘peaceful protest’, like burned cars and houses. And suddenly, after and brutal slaughter, journalists arrive at Urumqi, finding that a bunch of Han Chinese wielding batons. What a good image!

    Posted 09 Jul 2009 at 2:44 am
  8. JackUH wrote:

    I think the most suspicious is that I’ve literally only seen one photo of violence against Uighurs. Honestly, even in the Tibetan ’08 protests we did have a few photos of Tibetan victims. If this is an incident planned & instigated by “splittist forces”, one would think they would prepare even doctored photos to show the foreign media. An absence of this indicates that they weren’t really suspecting a large incident and may be riding the wave.

    This doesn’t make sense. At the risk of going into speculative territory, I’m beginning to suspect that either images are being withheld, images of Chinese victims are being pushed, and/or Uighur bodies are getting cleaned up quickly. Stepping back from this speculation, it does look like once again the narrative is being fought between the Chinese government, the Western Media, and the Internet, similar to previous “Mass Incidents”

    Posted 09 Jul 2009 at 6:05 am
  9. Rico wrote:

    Lying can’t save you

    Posted 09 Jul 2009 at 7:54 am
  10. Chemhu wrote:

    Apparently,the policeman in the car is an Uighur.
    Actually, I also noticed in some photos there are some Uighur policemen.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Posted 09 Jul 2009 at 12:49 pm
  11. alexis wrote:

    All the trends of western media just send the clear signal that, because Chinese government is bad, it is OK to attack Chinese civilians, businesses, or cultural representations. I am very convinced of that. That’s exactly the opposite narrative of 9/11.

    Posted 09 Jul 2009 at 3:28 pm
  12. alexis wrote:

    Though I don’t think there is a western conspiracy as such. It’s just the way it is.

    Posted 09 Jul 2009 at 3:30 pm
  13. Porfiriy wrote:

    Alexis, I’ve seen a lot of people saying that but frankly that’s just due to the all-too-common tendency to blur the line between explanation and endorsement. The Western media is saying these riots occurred due to Uyghur discontent. To do so is to pinpoint a reason for it, not to endorse it. The Chinese media as of late is completely failing to address the causes of the riots.

    After 9/11, several media outlets also pinpointed (often justifiable) discontent and bitterness in the Islamic world as a cause for 9/11. In fact, the United States government released a book-length report that acknowledged it. When CNN or the New York Times or the US Government itself says that, for example, our unsustainable policies during the Cold War in Afghanistan were one root of the 9/11 attacks, were they endorsing the attacks or saying it is “OK to attack American civilians” because the US government “is bad?” No, it is merely offering an explanation as to why it happened.

    So explaining is not endorsing. You can say that killing 150 Han Chinese is totally, unequivocally wrong and also say that this happened due to inept Chinese policies and massive Uyghur discontent in the same sentence and not contradict yourself.

    In my opinion, the Western media has made a lot of mistakes in covering what has happened in Urumqi. Saying it is “ok” to attack Chinese civilians is not one of them.

    Posted 09 Jul 2009 at 6:42 pm
  14. alexis wrote:

    I said the narrative of western media send the ‘signal’ that it is ok to attack Chinese civilians, I didn’t say that they actually ‘said’ it is ok to do so. Of course there has occassionally been some lip service paid to those civilians killed. The stories of western medaia is not just to address the ‘reason’ of Uighur discontent, which I (against the state meadia of China) am more than willing to acknowledge, they are on the task of portraying the massacre as something like a second edition of Tian’anmen 4/6, which to me is totally different. While TAM is those who have a ‘reason’ being masscred by the military, this riot is those who have a reason massacred civilians doing nothing wrong but happen to be another race. Name one mainstream western media who openly addressed this point, even vaguely. Not one that I have seen.

    Addressing the reason of discontent is not necessarily in conflict with acknowleding that massacre is massacre, right? Except that 11/9 is a massacre in the first place and government acknowlement of ‘the reason’ an adjustment of the tone, while Urumqi massacre is an ‘expression’ of ‘the reason’ in the first place and acknowledgement of brutal violence (still to be seen) an ajustment of tone. Is that because hundreds being killed really incomparable to thousands died in 11/9?

    Of course Chinese government is failing to address the ‘reason’ of the massacre, as it always does in handling ‘mass incidents’.But pointing out that Chinese government is doing wrong doesn’t prove that you are doing right. Am I right? Isn’t that the strategy you constantly use?–pointing out American government is not doing a good job doesn’t mean Chinese government is doing right. Now please use this stragety on yourself.

    Posted 09 Jul 2009 at 7:57 pm
  15. alexis wrote:

    Though please don’t take me wrong. I don’t hate western media and the West as such. Actually, I like them. But, not like you, I am just willing to live with the fact that on one moral issue there isn’t always only one coherent answer.

    Posted 09 Jul 2009 at 8:01 pm
  16. Porfiriy wrote:

    Name one? This was on the front of the paper edition of the New York Times today:

    So… yeah.

    Also, I recommend not using the phrase “not like you.” I haven’t expressed my opinions on the morality of the issue, so you really aren’t in a position to make a judgment of it, are you?

    Posted 09 Jul 2009 at 9:37 pm
  17. Porfiriy wrote:

    “But pointing out that Chinese government is doing wrong doesn’t prove that you are doing right. Am I right? Isn’t that the strategy you constantly use?–pointing out American government is not doing a good job doesn’t mean Chinese government is doing right. Now please use this stragety on yourself.”

    What? That makes no sense whatsoever. This blog isn’t addressing whether or not what the American government is doing is right. There are plenty of American blogs in America that criticize the American government, if that’s what you want. You can’t fault us for not covering the American government because that’s not the purpose of this blog.

    Posted 09 Jul 2009 at 9:41 pm
  18. chemhu wrote:

    All the trends of western media just send the clear signal that, because Chinese government is bad, it is OK to attack Chinese civilians, businesses, or cultural representations. I am very convinced of that. That’s exactly the opposite narrative of 9/11.
    I do not see any difference between this guy and the rioters in Urumqi.
    Chinese gov said the outsiders stired up the unrest and the killing, I did not believe that. But now I have to say Chinese gov is right.

    Posted 10 Jul 2009 at 12:39 am
  19. alexis wrote:

    My point is: by pointing out Chinese government is committing terrible crimes does NOT prove western medaia’s cover of Urumqi massacre right. That’s the same logic in rebutting the idotic argument some Chinese ‘Angry Youth’ may put forth, as you always point out if I remember right, which is: that American politics is not doing right does not mean Chinese government should not be criticized in such and such respects. I didn’t in any sense require you to cover American politics. It’s basically the rhetoric logic I am trying to highlight. My English is not good enough and I am trying my best to make myself clear.

    My ultimate point may be put like this: I don’t have any problem at all stressing the background reason for the killing in the streets of Urumqi.But reason is reason, killing is killing, don’t talk one thing as if you are talking another. Is that too much to ask?

    On the morality issue, I just mean that you can’t just put all social and political questions to a moral judement that can decide everything, while things on the ground may be a thousand more diverse and complicated. Well, tt’s just my personal feeling reading you majestic blog on the new dominion, that’s all. Sorry if I offended you, which I kinda did.

    Posted 10 Jul 2009 at 4:35 am
  20. Porfiriy wrote:

    If that’s your point, then its wrong, because I’m NOT trying to prove the Western media’s coverage is right (I’ve already admitted there are several mistakes, see above), I’m trying to prove YOUR allegation that the media is saying “It is OK to attack Chinese civilians” is wrong. You’re conflating way too many things here, and you are frequently taking one thing and interpreting it to mean something bigger than it is.

    Frankly, I don’t understand what your “ultimate point” is – the language isn’t clear.

    As for offending me, yeah, you sort of did, but not because of some grand moral feeling, but mostly because there are four writers on this blog and each one is entitled to his or her own opinion, and you made a judgment about my moral opinions based on someone else’s article. It’s really simple, nothing grandiose here. Again, your tendency to conflate things, I don’t know where you’re from, but where I’m from just because two people are part of a same group effort doesn’t automatically mean they have the same opinions or beliefs about something.

    Posted 10 Jul 2009 at 5:29 am
  21. Ralphie wrote:

    I feel sorry to see how someone can bluntly declare that it is OK (or even desired) to cut the link between the background and the violence. Hastily jumping into revenge without looking at the historical background will guarantee circles of violence. This is not the time to emphasize on revenge or adding oil to the already burning nationalism, not if China wants a genocide or jihad. I remember on the issue of TIME magazine about a week after 9/11, there is a photo of an Afghan hound with this sentence below it: “Most of the Afghans are like me, they just want to shake your hands.”
    Scenes of violence is not lacking on the CHinese media. But on the flip side, besides empty slogans calling for “harmony,” China lacks a public forum to call for a total review of its policy toward the minorities. It doesn’t take a rock scientist to know how to talk about violence and rage. Believe me, even monkeys get into clans and fight each other. But it takes human intelligence and conscience to know how to cut the circle of violence by looking back and looking forward.

    Posted 10 Jul 2009 at 12:38 pm
  22. Helen wrote:

    Foor so sorry about ur article coz it is biased. If it is only a demonstration, why they attacked innocent civilian and taken 157 lives (maybe more) till then, who were the passenger in the buses, customers in the shops, children playing on the square and people walking on the streets? And, over 130 of the victims were Han Chinese.

    Pls find more pictures about the real. See what thy brave Uyghur boys done. If u were a Han Chinese living in urumqi, what would u do to protect urself when u have to go out for work or food with fear of attack?

    Can u imagine what if this happened in USA or French? Ethic tension is very complicated and need more wisdom and toleration. In Urumqi, Han Chinese complain that thy Uyghurs can have more children, free education, more chances to enroll into colleague with less scores, less punishment if they commit crimes. For Uyghur, they complained they were biased when seeking for job, robbed of the mines of their homeland.

    Anyway, Urumqi is a beautiful city, homeland for many ethic groups. Hope all the people can live happily together.

    Posted 10 Jul 2009 at 3:04 pm
  23. Porfiriy wrote:

    Helen, did you read the title of the post? These are images from the Tuesday demonstration. Tuesday. 星期二。

    Posted 10 Jul 2009 at 6:22 pm

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