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China threatens to jail 'rumour mongers'

September 15, 2009

Government sending 'harmony makers' to restive Urumqi to reassure citizens

By Aileen McCabe

Canwest News Service - September 9, 2009

China is once again threatening to jail "rumour mongers," as it desperately
tries to come to grips with the ethnic unrest rocking Urumqi, the capital of
the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

The China Daily reported Tuesday that rumour mongers in Urumqi would be
treated like criminals. It said officials have decreed: "Those who
deliberately spread false information about people being stabbed with
needles could be jailed for up to five years." The official Xinhua news
agency said those who pretend to suffer an attack will also face punishment.

More than 600 people, almost all Han Chinese, claim they have been stabbed
in recent weeks by Uighurs wielding syringes. So far, doctors say 105 of
them "show obvious signs of needle attacks."

The attacks come after a tense summer in Urumqi.

Normality was slowly returning after riots in early July that left nearly
200, mostly Han Chinese, dead at the hands of Uighurs, the ethnic Turkic
minority in Urumqi, a city of 2.3 million, but the needle attacks put paid
to that.

The Internet has not functioned in Urumqi since the July riots. Most of the
social networking sites are down, including Facebook and Twitter.

The government appears to be aiming its rumour-mongering fire at
word-of-mouth communications among Urumqi's inhabitants.

Monitoring conversations is a daunting task, but China has the luxury of
copious manpower to throw at the project. Authorities said 7,000 "harmony
makers" are on their way to Urumqi to help reassure panicked citizens.

It is not clear if these harmonizers are police, social workers or Communist
Party cadre, but Xinjiang party chief Wang Lequan said they will go
door-to-door and "settle disputes."

China has threatened to prosecute "rumour mongers" several times in the past
few years. It bandied about the threat after the unrest in Tibet last year.
After the Sichuan earthquake, Xinhua reported 17 "rumour mongers" were
punished for Internet postings that "spread false information, made
sensational statements and sapped public confidence."
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