Urumqi Riots: 2 Year Anniversary

July 5 | 18 Comments

It was two years ago today that the streets of Urumqi, capital of China’s Xinjiang province, were filled with protesters, police, riots and burning cars.

It was two years ago today that almost 200 people died and hundreds more were wounded.

It was two years ago today that text messaging in the province was disabled and the internet was cut for a record 10 months.

It was two years ago today that the fight between the Han and Uyghur cut so deep that the scar will likely never disappear.

I remember this day just like it was yesterday. I remember the frantic phone calls from friends, the police marching down the empty streets wearing riot gear, and for the first time not a single car, taxi or bus ferrying people from one place to another. We all just locked ourselves in our homes and waited for time to pass.

The Blame Game

That day still remains clouded in confusion. I was there when it happened and I don’t fully understand what transpired, yet somehow the government, human rights groups, and scores of journalist tell me they know exactly what happened. And what’s worse, each of them have videos to “prove” their side of the story.

Who am I supposed to believe? The government has a bad reputation when it comes to re-writing history, however the international Uyghur groups have done themselves no favor by insisting that the 150+ Han bodies that lay dead in the streets was a justifiable retaliation for “excessive force” from the police. The crackdown that has happened since July 2009 is worthy of outrage, but the riots themselves? I still hold that both groups were equally at fault.

Urumqi Riots Timeline

If you’re not quite sure what happened in Xinjiang during the month of July 2009 or if you need a refresher, here’s a look at the events that took place:

About Josh Summers

Josh is the author of Xinjiang | A Traveler's Guide to Far West China, the most highly-reviewed and comprehensive travel guide on China's western region of Xinjiang. He lived, studied and run a business in Xinjiang, China for more than 10 years, earning recognition for his work from CCTV, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others.

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  1. Thank you for your post. A question for you:

    Were you in Urumqi on July 5, 2009? This is not to say that if you were not there, you don’t “know what happened”. But you seem to base your credibility partly on this assertion.

    And yes, it is true that neither “side”, meaning the Chinese state and Uyghurs, should say that their account is the truth. The main concern that should be raised is the need to open up Urumqi to investigation.

    It is true also that all violence, including terrible violence inflicted on Han Chinese, should be condemned. Murder is not ever “justified”. All people who died in July and September 2009 should be mourned.

    There are also many credible reports that the “excessive force” you mentioned resulted in many Uyghur dead on July 5. Why, then, trust the Chinese number of “150 Han bodies” more than accounts contradicting accounts from Uyghur and human rights groups?


    Josh on July 6th, 2011 at 2:13 am

    Thanks for your comment and for being civil about a topic that usually elicits a lot of passion. To answer your question, yes I was there in July 2009. I wrote about it extensively whenever I could get internet access (which was very difficult). I freely admit that I don’t know all that happened – and considering that I was there I find it hard to believe that these other organizations have it all figured out.

    Both “sides” have been wronged, and both sides have committed wrongs. Yet somehow both of them try to paint themselves as victims, and this irks me. Uyghur people killed over a hundred Han Chinese – this is difficult to dispute, I believe. Han people and police forces definitely killed and imprisoned Uyghur, although that number is much harder to verify.

    The point of this article is to mourn those who are dead, to remember this tragic day, and to emphasize that despite the propaganda that both sides spin, this is not a black-and-white issue.


    toshkan on July 6th, 2011 at 11:22 am

    I was in Urumqi when this rioting begain as well and have read nearly everything extent about those events. It has been disheartening to see positions hardening around the govt story and the Uyghur exile story while there only been a few scattered attempts to determine what actually happened (being the only story that matters)

    Maybe the saddest thing is that there is still tension among all the groups involved while none are any closer to facing up to the problems underscored by 7.5.

    Josh on July 6th, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    Well said – I believe that’s exactly the sentiment I was going for with this article but I think I didn’t express it as well as you just did. Thanks for the comment.

    Moby on July 10th, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    Wait, wait … so you claimed that both sides are wrong.

    First, you don’t deny that it was the Uyghur who were killing unarmed han civilians (including toddlers) in gangs… roaming the street searching victims for two days. Then you surmised that Han people and police forces definitely killed and imprisoned Uyghur. Thus both sides were wrong.

    I don’t know which world you come from. But any Govt from any countries will react the same way the Chinese Govt would. Which included imprisoning the preps or even kill.. to protect innocent and maintain law and order. From what I understand there are quite a number of Uyghurs serving with the Chinese police.

    I detect bias in you.

    If this were to occur in US, like the La riots, Paris riot, New Orleans or even Greece (right now). I don’t see the people condemning them. Police holding a 9mm pistol and a shield on the other, shooting unarmed protesters.. where’s the outrage. This year alone, I’ve seen vids of Troopers in US routinely shooting unarmed men. Wheeled chaired men, unarmed grandpa shot with 71 rounds of 9mm, tens of cops shooting a unarmed man in a car in Maimi. One man even got multiple shots for hosting his lawn. Then there were series of raiding the wrong house killing men and even a sleeping 7 year old. Tazering incidents are just too many to quote.

    Now imagine, gangs of Lakotahs roaming the streets killing any white the meet for two days. What do you think would happen? Every white men will be armed with hunting rifles and cops will be shooting any armed Lakotahs they find.

    According to you – Both “sides” have been wronged, and both sides have committed wrongs. Yet somehow both of them try to paint themselves as victims, and this irks me. Lakotah people killed over a hundred white – this is difficult to dispute, I believe. White people and police forces definitely killed and imprisoned Latotahs”

    Does this even sound logical ?

    Name changed to protect the innocent on July 7th, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    I was there for the 5th but was far from the action, however, I was out and about on the 6th and came across numerous large groups of well-armed (knives and clubs, no guns) Han vigilante groups that were shouting slogans and looking for trouble. They scared the crap out of me! No one knows how many (if any) innocent Uighurs died on the 6th. This has been hinted at but I’ve never read anything written about it. That many armed angry men make me believe someone got hurt that day. Any ideas?


  2. Very sad day indeed…

    I read that some maintain that gunshots of automatic weapons could be heard in Ürümchi on that night. Can you confirm (or invalidate) these sayings?


    Josh on July 6th, 2011 at 6:28 am

    Unfortunately I can’t confirm or deny that. Burning cars and massive groups of police were the extent of my involvement. I had friends who experienced more first-hand, but they prefer not to talk about it. It was bad.


  3. As tragic as it was, it was interesting reading about the variety of opinions, and yes, agree with Josh, everyone seemed to have one. My favorite was by a Chinese PhD student in the U.S. who wrote an article for China Beat, claiming that based on her sources (Chinese whispers), the riots were sparked by Southern (Kashgari) separatists. Her proof? Apparently sourthern accents could be heard during the riots!!!! Needless to say, her academic credentials were quickly diminished by other contributors.


  4. Just wanted to know what is happening over at New Dominion. The website has gone quiet for some reason. Does anyone know anything?


    Josh on July 6th, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    I know the guy who runs it and I think he’s just super busy. It’s hard to keep up a website about a place where you’re no longer living…trust me!


  5. Moved to Urumqi 8 months after riots. From what I hear the numbers
    of fatalities were closer to 2000 and not the under 200 that was reported
    these numbers are subjective as with any inside information but they do
    come from people that work in the Medical Facilities in Urumqi. I have heard
    some of the details but will refrain from recanting them for the reason they
    were not first hand experiences. I have heard the high numbers enough to
    add this to the conversation. My own experience with Han and Uyghur people have been great I hope that history no longer repeats itself in such
    a terrible way. Live with respect to one another and you will have a wonderful life.


  6. Hi

    Its good to find a website on xinjiang as its rare and i hope you continue with this valuable resource which will assist alot of people on the situation.

    Just want to introduce myself, I was born in Xinjiang in the city of Khulja of Uzbek orgin and speak Uyghur fluently but raised in Australia and more fluent in English then I am Uyghur.

    I ve been back to Xinjiang many times and was there during the 2009 riots and have many insights to what happened, and as an Uyghur speaker was able to find out alot more then many people here have, as you could say i can blend in with the crowd.

    If you allow me I would be happy to share you with you my experiences of Xinjiang and what many Uyghurs are expeirincing as ive had many private conversations with people from all walks of life.

    Hope you hear from you guys soon.