Chinese Muslim region adopts law on national unity

AP News
Posted: Dec 31, 2009 4:27 AM

The government of a restive Chinese Muslim region rocked recently by ethnic strife said Thursday it has adopted what appeared to be a sweeping law barring the spread of views deemed to threaten national unity.

The far-western, predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang said on its Web site that the vaguely described law on "education for ethnic unity in Xinjiang" was adopted Tuesday at a local legislature session and would take effect in February.

Nearly 200 people died according to official count in violent ethnic riots that erupted in July between the Muslim Uighurs and the ethnic majority Han Chinese in the oil-rich region that abuts Pakistan and Central Asia. China blames the rioting on overseas-based groups agitating for greater Uighur rights in Xinjiang, but has presented no direct evidence.

The Uighurs see Xinjiang as their homeland and resent the millions of Han Chinese who have poured into the region in recent decades. A simmering separatist campaign has occasionally boiled over into violence in the past 20 years.

Chinese authorities view the control of information as key to heading off or controlling the spread of unrest. Since the riots in Urumqi, the Chinese government has blocked Twitter and Facebook, scrubbed news sites, unplugged the Internet entirely in some places and slowed it and cell phone service to a crawl in others to stifle reports about the violence. Limited Internet service slowly began to return to the region this week.

The law passed Tuesday bars individuals and organizations from spreading opinions deemed not conducive to national unity and also from gathering, producing and spreading information to that effect.

The state-run Xinhua News Agency cited an official with the Xinjiang Regional People's Congress as saying that anyone who endangers ethnic unity or provokes secession will face prosecution and penalties.

None of the state media reports spelled out the criteria that would be used to determine whether a piece of information or an opinion could threaten national unity, or details on the penalties. Calls to the regional government spokesman's office rang unanswered Thursday.

"The law will promote equality, unity and harmony in Xinjiang and serve its long-term stability," the top legislator in Xinjiang, Eligen Imibakhi, was quoted as saying in the Xinhua report.

Lawmakers began drafting the law in August 2008, Xinhua said. After the riots, Imibakhi told state media that authorities would speed up local legislation against separatism. China already has a national law against secession, though there are no similar regional laws. Imibakhi had said the legislation would "provide legal assistance to Xinjiang's anti-secession struggle and crackdown on violence and terrorism."

The violence, China's worst unrest in decades, started when police and Uighurs in Urumqi clashed amid a demonstration in the city's downtown.