Discuss as:

Chinese open up – slightly – over Uighur riots

 URUMQI, China – Thousands of riot police have descended upon the Western city of Urumqi as Chinese authorities try to control the ethnic tensions that sparked riots on Sunday and left at least 156 dead. Fears of further violent clashes between the local Uighur population and Han Chinese in the oil-rich Xinjiang province forced Chinese President Hu Jintao to cut short his visit to the Group of Eight summit so he could address the situation.

NBC News' Ian Williams arrived in the city on Wednesday and reports on the mood in the city and government efforts to control the local Uighur population, as well as the media. 

What's the mood like in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province?

Well the city is very, very tense. There aren't many people on the streets, there is very little traffic.

The city has been flooded with riot police and members of the security forces. They have blocked most of the junctions downtown. There are police and security forces everywhere. They have really locked the place down.

Image: Armed Chinese policemen march towards a group of local women during a confrontation along a street in the city of Urumqi
SLIDESHOW: Clashes erupt in China's West

All the shops are closed. One or two are open, but most of the shops are shuttered. There are people just lingering on the corners, watching the riot police.  But it does seem that the authorities have the center of town under control at the moment.

It's very, very tense and you can feel it. There is a sense that without the massive police presence, violence could flare up again at any time. 

There have been reports of mob violence – on both the Han side and the Uighur side. Have you seen any of that? 

We arrived in town around midday today, but the situation seems calmer, compared to the reports we were hearing from earlier in the week. There were some rumors that there had been some smaller clashes this morning – but we didn't see any evidence of that.

 There just aren't many people on the streets. I think it's because they have made the security force deployment so huge. Any large group of people who gather are quickly broken up or dispersed by the riot police. The presence of security forces is particularly heavy in the town center and on the streets that lead up to the main Uighur neighborhoods.

 Just walking the streets earlier this evening, there were truckloads of riot police circling the main square. They were chanting as they went, saying things like, "We should be united."

There were also police cars driving by with loud speakers saying that the violence was only done by a minority and that, "we are all one people, people mustn't be scared, and go home." 

So there is a big effort to get people to calm down and stay off the streets. 

Now and again, we've had people come over and start talking to us. At one point we started talking to a young Uighur man and an angry Han Chinese man came over and interrupted us. He said, "Don't talk to him – he's a liar." So the Uighur man quickly disappeared. So there is a lot of tension not far from the surface.

What about the availability of information and communication lines like the Internet and cell phones?

It has been impossible for us to make international calls from here. We can receive calls, but we can't make them. The local mobile phone circuit seems to be OK, but just for local calls. There is no text messaging and no Internet.  

CHN: China's Far West
SLIDESHOW: Inside China's Xinjiang region

What about Chinese media coverage? And how are the Chinese authorities controlling the media?
There are a lot of Chinese journalists here. I think that by local standards, the coverage has been quite open.    

I think the Chinese authorities seemed to have learned from the mistakes of Tibet – when they locked things down and wouldn't let anybody in. The Chinese approach to the media seems to be a little bit more sophisticated this time. They've decided that they can't just ram the door shut and block information.

They are allowing people in, but once there they are here, they are trying to manage their movements more effectively by imposing pretty strict controls on the Internet, mobile phones, and the routes through which information would normally get out.

There is a press center that has been set up and it has what seems to be the only working Internet link in the city. It's a crowded place and the connection is very slow. So that is one way of controlling the journalists who are here.

But it's still not very clear what happened on Sunday when the initial riots occurred.

We went on a government sponsored trip to a hospital today. By far, the vast majority of the people we saw – some of them with horrendous injuries – were Han Chinese.

VIDEO: Chinese clamp down on ethnic unrest

But the government officials leading the tour wouldn't tell us what proportion of the injured were Han Chinese or what proportion were Uighur. Nor would they give the precise breakdown of what proportion of the injuries were gunshot wounds, which would suggest they were shot by security forces, and what proportion were head wounds. All they would say is that most of the injuries were from beatings.

We were not shown any Uighurs at the hospital. There were a couple of Uighurs in the hospital ward, one of whom said he thought he'd been mistaken for a policeman and he thought it was Uighurs who actually attacked him. But we weren't able to talk to any ordinary Uighurs, I think they were kept in a separate part of the hospital. 

And it is quite difficult to get into the Uighur neighborhoods because they are the ones that are most heavily sealed off by the riot police.

So it's difficult to ascertain precisely the mechanics of what happened on Sunday.  All we can conclude is that there was a real frenzy of ethnic violence. What is still not very clear are the claims from exiled Uighurs: That most of the deaths were caused by the police opening up on unarmed demonstrators.

There may have been people killed that way, but there were also a lot of Han Chinese who were injured. Of course, that's what the Chinese media is concentrating on.

But it is very difficult to get a proper feel as to what the breakdown is between Han Chinese and Uighur. And it could well be that the Chinese doesn't want to give out too many details for fear that it could further inflame passions. 

Related links: Newsweek: How China is spinning Uighur unrest
CFR.org: Why China's Xinjiang spiraled out of control