Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hotan Incident: More questions than answers?

On Monday 18, July in the city of Hotan, Xinjiang, China an incident occurred that left 18 people 'officially' dead and several injured, some seriously. By any measure a very serious affair.

I had been initially shocked and dismayed by the lack of  focus generally around the world on this very significant, incident in Hotan.

The Chinese proffered a story and the world obviously accepted it. There was no universal outcry by Human Rights groups nor western Foreign Affairs departments. Apart from some heavy 'reporting' on Twitter and several news items the silence, to me, was deafening.

As I pondered this and went back through news items something started to germinate in my mind. Something about this incident was just not right.

The more I thought about it the greater that feeling took hold. Thus this post.

The conclusions I come to make, I am sure, for an interesting discussion.

Some Background....

Hotan is an oasis town in the Tarim Basin in China's northwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The city of some 116, 000 people, of whom 93% are of the ethnic Uyghur people, nestles against the unforgiving Taklamakan Desert and has been inhabited by the Turkic Uyghur people from the 10th century.

Apart from it's exotic location it's has several claims to fame.

Firstly, it was at one time the second most famous Buddhist site in the world and today the ruins of Buddhist's monasteries are a major draw card to the wider area called the  Hotan Prefecture.

Secondly, it was a very important staging point on the southern branch of the fabled "Silk Road'. The historic trade route passed through Hotan as it wend it's ways on to India,Tibet, Central Asia and  points further west.

Today Hotan is primarily and agricultural area but has three industries that, once again, it is very famous for: carpet making, fabric making and the much sort after nephrite jade.

Many western people who visit Hotan praise it for the warmth of the people, the beauty of the scenery and the Hotan Markets which are ranked, along with the Sunday Market in Kashgar, as a must see on any tourist's itinerary.

So, on the 18th of July, the peacefulness of Hotan was supposedly shattered by what the Chinese Government has called a "premeditated terrorist attack", by Uyghurs, on a local police station.

The story from the Chinese side is that around noon of that day a crowd of Uyghur men, in their twenties through to forties, some reportedly from outside Hotan, stormed a police station near the Grand Bazaar marketplace armed with knifes, Molotov cocktails, axes and slingshots and killed four people; a policeman, a paramilitary security guard and two Han Chinese woman who happened to be at the station.

The police in response shot dead "several" of the rioters.

The Chinese further claim that the perpetrators were Islamic separatist/ terrorists for, as they ransacked and set fire to the premises, they reportedly shouted Jihadist slogans and mounted a "Free East Turkestan" banner from the roof of the police station.

Uyghur exile groups, such as the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), immediately countered in a press release saying that a peaceful demonstration by Uyghurs in the city's Grand Bazaar was fired upon by the Police killing several which incited the Uyghurs to storm the police station to take hostages to use as a negotiating tool. No mention was made by the WUC  as to casualties other than the protesters.

 Hotan historically, apart from one instance, has been free of the unrest that has troubled the rest of Xinjiang in the period from the Ghulja (Yining) Riots in 1997 to the Urumqi riots in 2009. A period that saw many Uyghurs and Han  killed and numerous Uyghurs imprisoned and executed.

The one exception to this occurred in Hotan in 2008 when a demonstration against the death in police custody of an Uyghur businessman and general complaints turned nasty resulting in the arrest of 700. Despite the fact that reportedly 1000 Uyghurs participated in that demonstration, held coincidentally in the same bazaar, there was no reports of serious injury or death. So peaceful is Hotan normally that a policeman contacted by a Chinese journalist after the recent incident said "such attacks are very rare here"

How then did this Incident happen? Which side is to be believed?

Reporting and Witnesses

The news reports by the Chinese press such as the China Daily, People's Daily and Global Times, all organs of the Government, are strikingly consistent in their reporting. In reviewing the press reports the only difficulty I have is that all witnesses interviewed were obviously Uyghur and were unanimous in their denouncement of the crimes and the brutality.This, of course, is not unreasonable given 93% of the population of Hotan is Uyghur and it occurred near the Uyghur markets where it would be unlikely for many Han to live. It just felt, however, by the reported comments, that the media were attempting to reinforce something, perhaps the Uyghur terrorist angle? perhaps something else?

The Uyghur exile organisations, on the other hand, quoted witnesses saying that a disturbance was seen to occur in the market area but definitely not the police station. They did not, however, say they saw any serious violence by either side.

So the bottom line from a witness point of view is that categorically no-one saw anything of the violence as it was supposed to have played out. How do 18 people die in such circumstances with no independent witnesses?

Photographic Evidence

On the left are several photos that emerged from the incident.

The first photo appears to show armed police entering the building, guns drawn and a fairly tense atmosphere.

 This photo is of the entrance to the police station. This is rather telling from a number of viewpoints. Firstly the picture is taken some time after the incident, minutes maybe, because it appears an ambulance is in attendance.

Secondly the policeman with gun drawn appears more interested in what may come rather then what is inside.

There is no evidence to be seen in this picture of any major disturbance.

There is no external fire damage. No scattered remains of spent cartridges and the normal bric a brac that is usually seen at the site of a riot cum massacre. And more importantly no sign of the banners that were supposed to be draped from the roof by the rioters. Surely an image like that would have confirmed the government's version of events.

We then have pictures of internal damage. It is worth to note that the pictures reportedly of internal damage do not bear the new agency's watermark, however, views through windows of a white railing is consistent with the building and its perimeter.The internal photos confirm an incident inside the station with fire damage and ransacking evident.

The last photo is of an injured person on a gurney about to loaded onto a waiting ambulance. The photo just lacks the "feeling" of moment that you would think would attend such a major incident .An ambulance is parked in the same position as the one in the entrance photo.Why so few ambulances?

The death and injury Toll

Something else that is of strange is why the full extent of the death toll was not revealed by the Chinese until 24 hours after the incident. Several reports over that time frame continued to state that four had been killed and "several" rioters shot dead. Even after the Uyghur exile groups had been quoting a figure of around twenty dead the Government would not commit to a figure. Why? Surely it would have been a case of just counting bodies. It could be argued that the Government was stalling in it's release of Uyghur death numbers to have time to bolster up security elsewhere in Xinjiang in anticipation of a possible backlash, a reasonable conclusion to arrive at it would have to be agreed. Alternatively, it could equally be said that the time delay was to allow some sort of cover up.

Another question that it is reasonable to ask is how do police kill 14 people unless those people are in a tight bunch, as in a crowd, or, a confined space? Hard I would suggest.

Also, two Han women were reportedly killed out of six women in the police station at the time, the others being Uyghur. Again, it would be easier to accept that the Uyghurs would kill Han but not other Uyghurs, but, again something does not feel right about this aspect of the Chinese government's story. Perhaps, the very fact that through all the press articles, it was so understated, having been mentioned only once.

And the injured? Where did they go? Radio Free Asia contacted a local hospital and was told two people had been admitted, one, obviously from the description of "young soldier" with serious injuries, must be the one widely reported as a survivor of the police station assault. But what about the rest? Several references were made of injuries sustained by government workers at nearby buildings. An official also stated that several wounded Uyghurs were caught and were awaiting interrogation. Where were these people taken to? There are several hospitals in Hotan that is true but surely you would think that where the injured soldier was taken so would others, as it must have been the closest.


I can not help but feel there is something seriously not right about this incident for the following reasons

  • The Chinese government, the Uyghur exile organisations and world human rights and governments have been relatively mute given the very serious nature of this incident and it's potential political volatility. Why? 
  • There are no eye witnesses. Why? 18 dead, unknown number injured, gun fight, police station on fire and no independent eye witnesses? 
  • The images released show something had transpired at the police station but nothing in those photos would suggest the enormity of what had been reported. One ambulance and a handful of police? No spent cartridges, no blood splattered ground, no scattered shoes, no evidence of external fire damage, nothing. 
  • You can not, I believe, have 18 deaths without a considerable number of non fatal injuries. Where did the injured go? Why was the extent of the injured not enumerated even to now?. 
  • Why did this occur in a peaceful town with no significant history of violence? Kashgar, Urumqi, Yining yes, not Hotan. Especially when in 2008 1000 protested for a very valid and serious reason but with no deaths or significant injuries occurring. This current incident reportedly involved 100 and resulted in a massacre. Why? 
  • If 14 Uyghurs were gunned down and two Han women were killed by Uyghurs you would not wish to have been in Hotan and half of the country's security forces would have been sent there very quickly. This does not seem to be the case.Why? Did the government know that this incident would not escalate? 

I am going to put my neck out here.

Something did occur on the 18th of July 2011 in Hotan, Xinjiang. There was, I believe, a demonstration in the city's Grand Bazaar either planned or spontaneous. Being a non market day and given the reportedly few involved, I would suggest it was spontaneous. Police attended and, I would once again suggest, broke it up fairly roughly. This would be why a majority of the police on duty that day were reportedly away from the station supposedly "door knocking" when the attack on the police station occurred.

Whilst the majority of police were attending the bazaar a person, or persons, most likely Uyghur, gained entry into the police station, by whatever means, and caused a problem, the extent of which can not be, without reasonable doubt, ascertained. The only non aligned witness in all reports was the person RFA spoke to at the hospital and she could only confirm one seriously injured young soldier and one other injured person.

I would contend that there was not a major incident on the 18th to the extent it was reported. The government has, for whatever reason, attempted to cover up the real story. Whether someone had jumped the gun and grossly over reported a minor incident or that the Chinese Government was worried that the real story might emerge, that is, that what occurred was a successful takeover of a virtually unmanned police station by a small number of Uyghurs.

Their reason? Embarrassment and fear that the government's cloak of invincibility would have been torn away and thus inviting far greater disturbances and with subsequent "social disharmony" on a rather large scale.

See follow up report on Hotan Incident  Hotan attack takes a toll on business (and logic)