Changing China

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Misinformation age in Urumqi

Urumqi is a city cut off from the outside world. There has been no Internet access for two months. Phone links in or out of the region are sporadic. Text messaging is limited. 
 
And so people gather in the streets to listen to rumors.
 
Walking through the streets of Urumqi these past days, the main sounds I heard were of human voices. The snatches of conversation carried rumors of syringe attacks, and outbreaks of rebellious outrage. The words floated from open shop doors, from knots of people gathered at a bus station, and from people talking on cell phones as they passed me on the sidewalk.
 
It was unusually quiet for China, and so the voices carried. Construction sites halted work on Friday and Saturday and road blocks kept cars out of the city so that demonstrators wouldn’t flood in, after thousands gathered in People’s Square on Sept 2 to demand the resignation of the region’s most powerful official. He came out on a balcony to address the crowds through a bullhorn; they threw bottles and stones at him.
 
On Friday evening, at an intersection where police and paramilitary had disbursed thousands of ethnic Han Chinese trying to force their way to People’s Square, a knot of people gathered to listen to a grim woman, her voice clear and defiant.
 
“China is democratic and scientific now, but they have taken away our democracy by keeping us down.”
 
Urumqi was swept by talk of syringe attacks, which the government blamed on separatists, and gripped by a resurgence of racial hatred, two months after 197 people were killed during a riot by Uighurs. Terrified of the mysterious syringe stalkers, Han Chinese took to the streets in disgust and fear to demand more security from the government. Troops were stationed at the entrance to Uighur neighborhoods, to prevent bloodshed by the angry crowds.
 
The rumors varied with each group clustered on the sidewalks — some versions claimed Uighur women, in their distinctive headscarves, were sticking people with syringes. Others said men were targeting Han women and children. Still another blamed “Uighurs wearing suits.”
 
On Saturday morning, about 20 men huddled around a Chinese man who was busy conveying the story of how a boy had been pricked with a needle, and how troops had prevented the crowd from beating up a nearby Uighur. Then an older man began a litany of complaints about mistreatment by the police and paramilitary. The others nodded in agreement.
 
The syringe scare was started by a police department text message last Monday, warning residents against attackers with syringes. Based on the indictments so far, some drug addicts had robbed a cab driver by threatening him with a syringe; another tried to fend off police who were trying to rescue them. And then there was a teenager who stuck a needle in a fruit seller’s buttock.
 
The government warned of a coordinated separatist attack. The effect of the text message, especially in buses crowded with Urumqi residents who are fearful and suspicious of each other, was panic. Over 500 people have gone to the police saying they were attacked; only 106 of them had a clear mark, bump or rash on their skin, official figures show.
 
But it’s not all hysteria. Those 106 people were pricked with something.  Xinhua, the state news agency, said some were mosquito bites. But others were indeed injured, albeit slightly. Doctors, who reassured reporters that it was unlikely the attacks could spread AIDS, said that at least some of the verifiable injuries could be pin or sewing needle pricks.
 
So who is sticking needles into people? Angry copycats who got an idea from that text message? People who want to enjoy the fuss? People who want to arouse tension and strife in Urumqi, the divided city?
 
If the government wanted to reduce tensions, it has a tough job now. Its claims of a separatist plot have inflamed tensions, but it is so invested in them it would be difficult to back off now. If it said nothing was happening, people would believe a cover-up was going on.
 
As I wrote this, the government ordered work units in central Urumqi to close at 6 pm, but gave no reason for the order. Instantly, more wild rumours flashed through the city.

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