Yale students narrowly avoid ethnic riots in China

As part of a three-week seminar in China this past summer, a handful of Yale graduate students and graduates from the class of 2009 found themselves in Urumqi, the capital of the province of Xinjiang. Just one day after they had left the city for their next destination, riots between ethnic Uighurs and Han Chinese erupted in Urumqi, leaving scores of people dead and hundreds injured.

“It was a complete shock because we’d just been there a few hours ago,” Alexandre Jenn ’09, one of three recent graduates on the trip, recalled of hearing the news. “Had it been by one more day, things could have been very different.”

But with Internet blocked and phone access limited, trip leader and history of art professor Mimi Yiengpruksawan relied on what she called a “patching” system of communication links to make contact with the students’ families in the United States — an interaction that was complicated by what she called a slow response from Yale.

While a Yale administrator said the University was in touch with New Haven staff members from the Council on East Asian Studies, which sponsored the trip, Yiengpruksawan independently decided to coordinate with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to arrange for the group to evacuate the province.

The group — which included staff members from the CEAS, a Yale University Art Gallery curator and experts from several other universities — spent the rest of the trip safely outside volatile areas.

“Although all was well for us in the end, the potential for a negative outcome signals a need to develop a plan or system that can at best proactively and at worst reactively deal with problems as they arise,” Stuart Symington ’09 said.

‘IN THE DARK’

By the time the students became aware of the violence that had flared up in Urumqi, they were one outside the Uighur parts of Xinjiang, at its rural and mostly Mongol and Kazak northeast border, Joshua Frydman ’06 GRD ’13 said. On a bus “in the middle of nowhere,” as Jenn recalled, a Yale staff member received a phone call alerting her of the situation in Urumqi, where rioting eventually prompted a police lockdown.

While the group was out of harm’s way, up-to-date information about the situation in Urumqi and Xinjiang was scarce, students said. The Chinese government cut off all Internet access in Xinjiang. And with the exception of some domestic calls, cell and landline phone calls were blocked in the region.

“Family members who tried to call my cell phone received a message that the number did not exist,” Yiengpruksawan wrote in an e-mail message. “In short we were completely in the dark.”

Domestic calls, however, did go through to contacts in other Chinese provinces, who in turn reached the CEAS staff in the U.S., Yiengpruksawan said. In addition to updating the students’ parents, CEAS Financial Officer Melissa Keeler alerted the University, including members of the Office of International Affairs and the Office of Risk Management, according to Yiengpruksawan. (Keeler declined to comment for this article.)

OIA Director Donald Filer said Yale’s policy for emergencies abroad, as outlined on the Yale in the World Web site, recommends that Elis seek medical services if needed and then contact the travel assistance organization MEDEX, Yale Security, University Health Services or a personal healthcare provider, and the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy.

Yiengpruksawan said she requested direct contact with the University, but she said she never heard from any member of the Yale administration about the situation in Xinjiang and that the University’s response to the CEAS staff was “slow” and “lacking in some cases.” The mothers of two students were also unsuccessful in making contact with the University from within the U.S., Yiengpruksawan said.

OUT OF XINJIANG

As an alternative, Yiengpruksawan said the group used a contact one student’s mother had in the U.S. State Department to get support from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Filer explained that the communication blockages like those in Xinjiang can complicate Yale’s response to such emergencies. While Filer said he did not remember the exact chronology of when contacts were attempted and made, he noted that his office “was in regular communication” with CEAS staff at Yale, touching base with them “numerous times a day” while also gathering information about the unrest in Xinjiang from sources within the University and in China. Risk Manager Marjorie Lemmon did not respond to requests for comment about her office’s response to the situation.

“In every situation, whether it involves a group or an individual, the critical and sometimes the most difficult piece is establishing communication, and often it goes through roundabout ways,” Filer said, adding, “It often does take a little bit of time to figure out exactly what the best course is.”

Back in Xinjiang, most news of the events in Urumqi reached the group in what Symington also called “roundabout” ways — through conversations with the group’s bus driver, for example, as well as through exchanges with friends and family who were in other Chinese provinces. Otherwise, the only news the group members heard was from state-run television reports, which Jenn said were often incomplete or biased.

With the growing threats of kidnappings and violence against foreigners, the Embassy advised Yiengpruksawan and the group to evacuate the region. With the Embassy’s oversight, the group returned to Urumqi three days after the rioting.

Symington recalled that Xinjiang’s “usually bustling” highways were “eerily quiet” and that there was an increased military and police presence, as well as multiple passport checkpoints along the route back to Urumqi.

A military escort accompanied the students and professors to the airport, where they caught a flight to Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, about 1,000 miles southeast of Urumqi, Frydman said. Instead of ending the trip in a heavily Uighur a part of Xinjiang already prone to unrest, the excursion concluded in the eastern part of Tibet, he explained.

While looking back, “there was no immediate danger,” Frydman said, he wishes there had been “an established procedure” for getting in touch with particular members of the University.

Filer noted that a meeting to review the incident with the parties involved has been scheduled.

The trip was part of the three-week Yale Xinjiang Seminar, the final seminar in the Yale Silk Road Seminars Project, a series of courses led by Yiengpruksawan in the summers of 2006-’09. While the seminars were run under the auspices of Yale’s CEAS, they were funded in large part by a U.S. government grant.

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