China's Riot Police Deployed to Halt Uighur Violence

China deployed hundreds of helmeted troops in riot gear to Urumqi, the capital of restive Xinjiang region where ethnic riots left at least 156 dead and over 1,000 injured.

The heavy military presence was most evident in the central square and along major avenues as Chinese authorities sought to avert more clashes between the ethnic minority Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese.

Chinese security forces formed a perimeter around Uighur neighborhoods to prevent Uighurs from getting out and Han Chinese from going in. But the security blanket did not prevent sporadic outbreaks of violence.

An ABC News team driving to the Uighur quarter in Urumqi witnessed a group of 30 Han men beating a Uighur man, kicking him and hitting him with sticks. According to ABC producer Beth Loyd, the Uighur was not fighting back but was just simply trying to get away while hundreds of Han in the surrounding area were cheering the men on.

The police did little to stop the attack, but were eventually able to get the Uighur away from the mob and put him in a vehicle for his protection.

"Then the mob turned on us," Loyd said. "They blocked our cameras, not wanting the images of Han Chinese beating a Uighur to get out. I was pushed, then the crowd surrounded us and started yelling. They pushed us back up a highway ramp where we were shooting. They yelled that Western journalists were biased against the Han Chinese and that we should delete our footage. One man tried to grab our camera and then pulled out a baton and held it over his head as if he were going to hit us. We turned around and ran."

"The oddest part of the whole experience was that there were swarms of police and troops around and none of them were really trying to break up the fight," Loyd said.

When the ABC crew entered a Uighur neighborhood, they spoke to several residents who were afraid to have their faces shown on television out of fear of reprisal by the authorities. The police stopped the crew several times and eventually forced them to leave the area.

Ethnic clashes have paralyzed the city since the unrest erupted last Sunday, forcing President Hu Jintao to cut short a trip to Italy where he was scheduled to take part in a Group of Eight summit.

The Communist Party chief of Urumqi, Li Zhi, told a televised news conference the authorities will deal severely with those found responsible for the deaths of the 156 riot victims. "To those who committed crimes with cruel means, we will execute them," he said.

Chinese authorities have been trying to control the unrest by blocking the Internet, including social networking sites like Facebook, cutting off access to international calls while limiting access to texting services on cell phones.

At the same time, the government has allowed the foreign media to cover the ethnic tensions, unlike last year when Chinese officials closed Tibet to foreign reporters when a similar riot broke out.

In Urumqi, the authorities even set up a special press center where foreign reporters took turns using the broadband links while the rest of the city was cut off from cyberspace.

The reporter from the Daily Telegraph, Malcolm Moore, tweeted Wednesday morning on the massive reinforcement of Chinese troops: "Enormous security operation moving in to blanket the city and take control. There will be no repeat of yesterday's chaos."

When groups of Han Chinese roamed the streets with sticks and other homemade weapons seeking vengeance against the Uighurs while the latter responded in kind, Melissa Chan of Al Jazeera tweeted this message: "There is no right or wrong anymore. Just vigilantes, Han and Uighur. Mostly men but some women and even children."

David Bandurski, an analyst of the Chinese media based at the University of Hong Kong, has a term for this new media strategy – "Control 2.0". Unlike previous Chinese efforts at cracking down and blocking out international media coverage, he explained that the new approach seeks to shape the story in favor of the regime and targets more specifically the content and manner of information dissemination.

As part of this strategy, the state-run media such as the Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television try to charge ahead of the international media in getting the story out during major incidents. According to Bandurski, "By getting the information out, officials can get the 'peripheral media' to work for them."

"These media feed off of the original Xinhua reports, amplifying their effect. Those same reports, with only slight permutations in many cases, become AFP, Reuters and AP reports," he wrote in his website.

By employing such a technique, the government seeks to control the spread of unfavorable news and shape public opinion in China and abroad. Whether it will succeed amid the ethnic tensions in Urumqi still remains to be seen.