What Really Happened in the Hotan Riots?

July 25 | 15 Comments

For those of you that keep up with current events in Xinjiang and the deadly riots in Hotan (a.k.a. Khotan), I want to extend an apology for the ill timing of last week’s post entitled The Many Ways to Travel to Hotan. Obviously the sad news of the riots in Hotan have not only claimed the lives of many people, it has also made traveling there impossible for the time being.

Because I maintain a full-time job during the week, I usually write any articles the weekend before and schedule them to publish throughout the week. Such was the case here, where the travel article was written a few days before the deadly riots and was completely forgotten. To those whom this might have offended…I apologize.

What Happened in Hotan?

A map of Hotan in the Chinese province of Xinjiang If you don’t keep up with Xinjiang news, let me catch you up on what happened last week. On Monday, July 18th 2011, a deadly clash between Uyghur civilians and Chinese police has left at least 18 people dead. According to Chinese reports this includes 2 policemen, 2 hostages and 14 Uyghur.

Chinese media claims that this was a “long-planned, unprovoked, terrorist attack” whereas Uyghur organizations insist that about 100 locals had “peacefully gathered to protest a police crackdown imposed on the city for the last two weeks”.

Police forces have placed checkpoints along the roads leading in and out of Hotan and have completely barricaded the area where this incident occurred so that no independent sources can verify either of these claims.

Where Exactly Did This Happen?

One of the usually fun places to visit in Hotan is an area known as the “Grand Bazaar” or 大巴扎 (dabaza). It is here where you can buy Uyghur trinkets, cloths, clothes, and some tasty Uyghur food.
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About 200 yards to the southeast there is a police station guarded by a gate. Contrary to what you read in Xinhua or China Daily, this station isn’t in the “heart of the Grand Bazaar”, its a little ways south.

See below for a map of where all this took place or see this link on Google’s China Maps.

A map detailing the Hotan Riot on 7/18/2011

Crazy Things Worth Taking Note

What’s interesting are the discrepancies in the reporting and the strange trends that I’ve noticed. Check this out:

  • China Daily claims that this attack took place at the “Naarburg Street police station” and even shows a picture. What you don’t realize it that this picture is actually cropped. The original photo reveals a sign that says this police station is located at 357 East TaiBei Street. I think I know why this is, but the picture cropping still seems sketchy to me.

The Hotan Police Station during the riots in 2011Compare with the China Daily picture

  • Another China Daily article chalked all this up to religious extremism, claiming that “They [the rioters] hang ultra-religious banners on the station building just to fabricate larger impacts.” As you can see in the picture above, no such banners are evident.
  • Peter Dixie, a follower of FWC on Twitter, noted the presence of Chinese fireworks on the steps of the police station in the picture above. Important? I’m not sure. But I do know that most police don’t blow up fireworks in their spare time.
  • Xinjiang officials have worked hard since 2009 to stop the “outside influence” of Uyghur organizations from the US and EU, so it would be counter-intuitive to blame this incident on them. Instead, a Chinese government think-tank has decided to place the blame on Pakistan.
  • Considering how much China hates anniversaries (think 6.5, 7.4, etc.) I find it fascinating that the Chinese press has already named this the “7•18 事件” or “7.18 Incident”. Don’t you think they’d want to shy away from calling it by its date?

It took a few days, but China has finally released a few pictures of the incident, a few of which you can see below:

Fires rage at a Hotan police station on 7.18 2011

The charred remains of the Hotan police station

Destruction of a Hotan Police Station on 7.18 2011

Rescue workers in Hotan during the 7.18 incident in 2011

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. It would be nice if the authorities showed the evidence instead of telling everyone about all the great evidence they found. It would greatly bolster their case. Weren’t there Molotov cocktails, homemade bombs, a Jihadist flag etc? I don’t think showing a few pictures to the Chinese public would incite anyone to violence. By not doing this they opened themselves to counter-claims of suppressed protests by Uyghur exiles, also presented without any documentary proof. These photos presented above certainly make clear that something happened in Hotan… It would be nice for all in Xinjiang to know exactly what that was.

    *I am also curious about the date abbreviations. It does seem to attach a strong significance to these events, something that the government certainly can’t desire. But then again, I saw reports today calling the Wenzhou train accident “7.23” and this is a bigger black eye for the central government.


  2. I remembr when i was here, the main square was filled with small children surrounded bypolice officers and cultural revolution songs were blaring from the Loudspeakers around the square. At a pilgramage site outside of town, the only banners i saw read smash extremists and splittists. Its a war zone out there and it will not get better till the uigher has been bred out.


  3. Josh

    This is Bill and we traded a couple emails before. Thanks for the details here. My wife, Ivy, and I had traveled to Xinjiang and a week ago were in Urumqi and the Kanas Lake area. We were due to fly to Kashgar but cancelled the rest of the trip after the riots there. I hope you can give some insight into the Kashgar situation as well.

    I have to be honest I did not find most of my experience in Xinjiang very appealing and doubt I will go back. My. Wife is Chinese and we had the hardest time getting rooms, even places we had booked refused us rooms as I was a waiguoren. My total number of time being refused a room now,with her, jumped to 13 in China. Not sure if other people have this problem. Not sure if the riots contributed to the hotels being paranoid of outsiders more or if there is some moral issue with whited evils sharing a room with a Chinese lady, married or not.

    Even the tour group we got pressured into joining (by her well intentioned dad) suddenly, after getting our money and riding down the highway for an hour, says “hey, we don’t take foreigners on this tour bus”


  4. Oops, I am on an iPad and not. Sure what happened there. Still some stuff to share.

    My wife got angry and said we had paid and we were guaranteed this and that by the tour agency (and we were) and they finally gave in and were pretty nice really. But at some lint someone ratted on us. Yea. Who knows who. A hotel worker or maybe another person in the group called and reported “there is a foreigner here!” and it may have caused problems for the bus driver and tour guide later. Hope not. I thought China was a bit past all of this.

    I also have never been refused the use of a restroom in a nice hotel in China until the NW. I was simply told “meiyou.” Never happened before. Typically the desk girl will even escort me. Now what? Laowai can’t even pee in a hotel restroom? Service too was abysmal. Service in China can be marginal at best anyway, but. It was simply primitive here.

    We both felt let down by the whole experience. My wife was born in Aksum in Xinjiang and we wanted to check it out but in the end the trip was a dissappointment for us. Perhaps others will have a different experience but I do not see me wanting to return anyway soon despite how majestic some of the
    scenery was.

    You have a sturdy constitution my friend. Best of luck out there and hope to read about Kashgar from your perspective soon.



    Paul Johnston on September 6th, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    Can you explain the words waiguoren and meiyou please?
    Thanks Paul


  5. The London riots were scary enough but this post puts it all into context. Thank for bringing this to our attention.


  6. In general, I like this blog. But many times, as in here, the author insinuates too much without anything but speculation.

    For example:

    Regarding the cropped picture: the picture was probably cropped for security reasons. In contrast, when Osama was nabbed, no real time pictures were released. In any case, if you want to make cropping a case, then state what critical information is cropped; why you think it mislead, etc. To me, it’s a straightforward case of not revealing too much of information that may come back to nab you when the situation is still hot.

    Regarding the banners: the lack of banners in this particular picture does not prove that the China Daily report you linked that reported a local officer to have said: “There was no ‘peaceful demonstration’ at all. Their purpose was just to kill police and the innocent,” he said. “They hang ultra-religious banners on the station building just to fabricate larger impacts.” If such signs were hung, I’d assume that they’d have been taken down pretty quickly. Now if the officer had talked about spray painting, and the picture above here appears to show the situation within a few hours (my guess) of violence, I’d be more doubtful (would the gov’t really have time to cover the paint in such short time, when the situation was still chaotic?). But surely racist or ultra-religious signs meant to incite and inflame, those would probably be taken down within minutes if not hours of the building being secured. The gov’t would be keen to stop anything in the premise inciting further violence.

    About the alleged fireworks in the front step of the police: hard to tell what to make of that tweet, especially we don’t see that here. Assuming the tweet is accurate: fireworks could easily be meant for a local celebration (some anniversary for some officers? some birthdays? wedding of officers?)? But of course, we are speculating. But to speculate here, in light of the recent disaster, to me shows poor taste. Last year’s riots after all began with rumors and speculations of rape and deaths in a faraway factory…

    About the Pakistan connection: Pakistan is taking China’s accusation seriously and doing something about it. The way this paragraph above was written, the author wants to insinuate that the gov’t is just looking for scapegoats. While some may argue that the gov’t should focus on the underlying societal problem that makes terrorism so politically combustible, that does not mean the gov’t should not get to the bottom of the ultimate perpetrators of this immediate incident.

    About the anniversary comment, I guess it’s not really worth a comment. Chinese media refer to all these incidents listed – even if they are not pleasant – by dates. What are you getting at again?


    Josh on August 14th, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    I appreciate your perspective, Allen, and thanks for the comment. Still, I stand by what I have written here not because I think I am right but because I am proud of my right to be critical. Unfortunately, China doesn’t feel that same way and for that reason we’ll never really know what happened in Hotan.

    Was the picture cropped? Yes. Why? Maybe no good reason, but it makes me wonder. There is nothing in this picture that screams “religious extremism”, and it would have been in the government’s best interest to show these signs if they really did exist.

    Pakistan was a scapegoat and you know it. And of course Pakistan is going to do something about it! They have to or else face political/economic retribution.

    Obviously you are very pro-government (which in my opinion is very different than being pro-China) and your website reflects this very well. The problem for me is that you blindly trust that whatever happened in Hotan happened just the way China Daily reported. I need just a little bit more confirmation than that. Who cares if all my speculations are true or not…they will never be confirmed or denied. Ever.

    Doesn’t that make you just a bit sad?


  7. Xinhua published 10 days ago an article with extra details about what went on in Khotan:


    What I find very interesting is the following lines :
    “On July 18, a mob stormed a police station, hurled burning gasoline cylinders into rooms, took hostages, and attacked people indiscriminately with axes and knives. Eighteen people, including 14 attackers, were killed in the clash.

    According to a police account, the attackers fought against police as they attempted to fly a flag with religious slogans on the flag pole on top of the police building.”

    I’m VERY puzzled by the “the attackers fought against police as they attempted to fly a flag with religious slogans on the flag pole on top of the police building”. Isn’t that challenging the explanation given 2 lines before of “a mob storm[ing] a police station”? The clash began only when the mob tried to fly the flag on the roof? How did they manage to get in with axes and burning cylinders freely? Such a threating mob couldn’t be prevented to get in the station? Is Xinjiang lacking of police and military forces?

    So many questions, so few answers…


  8. BEWARE : An official in-depth analysis from People’s Daily about the roots of riots : Riots expose social management shortcomings!

    “However, like what some Western media said, the root causes of the riots are hidden deeper. The polarization between the rich and the poor and social inequality are the fundamental causes of the riots. Some media said that the [region] is currently more unequal in such aspects as salary, wealth and opportunity than any other period in its history.

    The country’s wealth distribution is seriously unfair, polarization is quite obvious, and social administration is deficient. When these conditions are present, violence and riots will grow in the fertile soil. Currently, the polarization between the rich and the poor is an issue that every country has to face and always tries to avoid. […].

    The riots in [the region] are a mirror and also a living textbook.”


    What? Did I really forget to warn you that the article was about riots in London, UK, and not the ones in the Ürümchi/Khotan? Sorry then…
    But I can’t imagine that the Chinese authorities not being clever enough to draw the parallel between these events…


    Josh on August 17th, 2011 at 7:43 am

    Great comment, Xemit and an interesting observation. I have no doubt that it’s an observation that’s being made, they just don’t want to publicly acknowledge it.


    Xemit on August 17th, 2011 at 11:20 am

    Glad you enjoyed the post!
    I really don’t expect to see Nur Bekri or Zhang Chunxian to step forward and say “Oooops, my bad!”, so the blame is likely to remain upon the foreign separatist groups for quite a while. Meanwhile, the gov’t clearly feels that something is wrong with the money : Chinese news agencies are putting emphasis on the economic boost given to Xinjiang, with free trade zones and massive investments.
    But a few questions remain unanswered about the state of mind of the regional and central governments :
    – Are social inequalities between Han and Uyghurs supposed to level out as a collateral benefit of the overall economic rise of Xinjiang, without any specific actions carried out (against, say, recruitment discrimination)?
    – Is economic inequality the only issue that needs to be tackled and can the Economy solve all problems without any active policy in social and cultural realms?