China Replaces Leader of the Restive Xinjiang Region
By EDWARD WONG and JONATHAN ANSFIELD
Published: April 24, 2010BEIJING — Chinese leaders announced Saturday that they had replaced Wang Lequan, the ruling official in the vast western region of Xinjiang, whose capital was engulfed last summer by the deadliest ethnic violence in China in decades.
Ng Han Guan/Associated Press
Mr. Wang, who served 15 years as the party secretary of Xinjiang, an extraordinary length of time in such a post, has been replaced by Zhang Chunxian, 56, the party secretary of Hunan Province, according to Xinhua, the state news agency. Mr. Wang, 65, was given a new appointment as deputy secretary of the political and legislative affairs committee of the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee.
Mr. Wang has also served since 2002 on the Politburo, the inner sanctum of party members. The Xinhua report did not mention any change to that role.
For much of his tenure in Xinjiang, Mr. Wang was known as “the stability secretary,” and he occupied a singular position in the hierarchy of party power. He devised hard-line policies for governing Xinjiang, a caldron of ethnic resentment, that became a model for other restive regions of China, particularly Tibet. Mr. Wang put down uprisings by ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang and began many “strike hard” campaigns against what he called the “three forces” of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism.
But after last summer’s violence, support for Mr. Wang within the party began to falter, leading to private debate among Chinese leaders about his future.
The decision to replace him was announced Saturday morning at a meeting of top regional leaders in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, according to Xinhua. Present at the meeting was Xi Jinping, the national vice president who is the leading candidate to be the next president of China.
Mr. Xi said the party’s decision was “carefully studied” and heaped praise on Mr. Wang. “He has firmly erected the idea that stability overrides everything, unswervingly safeguarded national unity, and struggled with a clear-cut stand against the forces of ethnic separatism,” Mr. Xi said.
Despite Mr. Wang’s recent troubles, the announcement on Saturday still appeared to catch many residents of Urumqi off guard.
“Even some government staff were surprised,” said a Chinese journalist based there.
Last week, Chinese leaders decided at a meeting overseen by Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, to speed up the economic development of Xinjiang, an oil-rich region of desert and mountains that is one-sixth of China, Xinhua reported. Chinese leaders also recently announced a similar drive in Tibetan regions. The policies show that Chinese leaders continue to believe that developing the economies of those two regions will help quell restive ethnic groups.
Mr. Wang’s successor, Mr. Zhang, has little experience dealing with ethnic unrest, but has helped manage aspects of China’s economic and infrastructure development, notably as communications minister from 2002 to 2005. Like Mr. Wang, he is believed to be supported by Mr. Hu, the president.
The policies adopted by Mr. Wang during his long tenure marginalized the language and culture of the Uighurs — a Turkic-speaking people who mostly practice Sunni Islam and are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang — while encouraging migration to the region by the Han, who by official count make up 92 percent of the 1.3 billion people of China.
The greatest crisis under Mr. Wang’s watch erupted on July 5, 2009, when Uighurs went on a deadly rampage through the streets of Urumqi after security forces tried to put down a protest by Uighurs over perceived legal injustice. At least 197 people were killed and more than 1,700 were injured, most of them Han, according to government reports. Exile Uighur groups say an unknown number of Uighurs were killed and wounded by security forces.
Over the next few days, enraged Han roamed the streets with sticks, pipes and knives, seeking revenge. In interviews, some criticized the government for not preventing the initial violence; many also pointed out the absence of security forces in the hours after the rioting broke out.
The government cut off Internet access and cellphone text messaging, saying that such technologies had helped ignite the initial rioting. The government has only partially restored some of those services.
In early September, Mr. Wang became the direct target of popular resentment when tens of thousands of Han protesters marched through central Urumqi demanding that the government provide better security. Crowds surrounded the regional government headquarters and chanted, “Wang Lequan, step down!”
The protesters were outraged over widespread talk that Uighurs were stabbing Han with needles infected with H.I.V. There was no independent confirmation of the attacks, and the government kept a blackout for weeks on any information, contributing to the paranoia.
The Chinese journalist, who requested anonymity to speak on a delicate subject, said removing Mr. Wang before the first anniversary of the riots was “very smart.”
“The central government,” the journalist said, “has to remove this chip on the people’s shoulder before July 5.”
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