Latest Xinjiang violence prompts fear of nationwide impact

Authorities blame ‘religious extremists’ for deadly attacks in regional capital Urumqi

Armed police patrol near the exit of the South railway station, Urumqi, where three people were killed and 79 wounded in Wednesday’s bomb and knife attack. Photograph: Reuters/Petar Kujundzic

Armed police patrol near the exit of the South railway station, Urumqi, where three people were killed and 79 wounded in Wednesday’s bomb and knife attack. Photograph: Reuters/Petar Kujundzic


A deadly attack at Urumqi train station in China’s western province of Xinjiang last week has led to fears that the violence being inflicted by Uighur separatists could escalate into something more horrific.

Chinese authorities are blaming “religious extremists” and “mobsters” for Wednesday’s knife and bomb attack in the capital of Xinjiang, which left three dead and 79 wounded, increasing the death toll to more than 100 in the past year.

Despite this escalation of violence, there is no talk of Beijing re-evaluating its policies in the restive area to try and win over distrustful and angry Uighurs, who claim the central government is trying to colonise the province with ethnic Han Chinese and destroy their language and culture. Rather, the tone is combative.

President Xi Jinping said: “We can’t relax for one single minute in our fight against terrorism. We must curb the arrogance of the terrorists.”

Tough line
The People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, is taking a similarly tough line, calling the attackers “ruthless and despicable” and praising Xi’s tough line on terror, urging him to crank up the response and stamp out anyone trying to attack the motherland.

There are 10 million Turkic-speaking Uighurs in Xinjiang, which borders central Asia, and in recent years relations between them and the Han Chinese migrants coming into the province have become increasingly difficult.

“This attack means Beijing will pay stronger attention to the cultural conflicts in the region,” said Li Lifan, a professor of central Asian studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Science.

“Tough measures against terrorists will continue, but they shouldn’t be harsh in other areas. Respect for Uighur language and religion can ease some of concerns about Han people,” said Li.

Wednesday’s attack was the latest deadly terror assault linked to the far-west including one in the southwestern city of Kunming in March in which 29 people were killed and 140 injured by knife-wielding rioters in Urumqi, when local Uighurs turned on Han Chinese, an incident that led to deadly reprisals by Han on Uighurs a few days later.

The legacy of the unrest, which killed nearly 200 people, mostly Han Chinese, and left more than 1,700 wounded, was a heavy security presence in the region.

Bloody history
Uighurs account for 46 per cent of the population of Xinjiang, while Han Chinese dominate the north of the region. Xinjiang’s history is bloody and full of intrigue.

The Manchus took control in 1755, and China’s rule is generally dated back to 1870, when Qing Dynasty generals crushed a Muslim rebellion led by Yakub Beg, who proclaimed an independent Turkestan in 1865. Beg was an agent for Britain, which at the time was keen to counter Russia’s influence in the region and protect India, part of the strategic manoeuvring called the Great Game. For much of the first half of the last century, Urumqi was a dangerous place, where feuding warlords battled for control and deadly intrigue was the order of the day.

One local Chinese governor, Yang Zengxin, invited his enemies to dinner in 1916 and had each one beheaded over the course of the meal. He himself was assassinated in 1928.

China re-established control in Xinjiang in 1949 after crushing the short-lived state of East Turkestan, and it now insists Xinjiang is an inalienable part of China’s territory. It has garrisons in the province to underline that status.

China blames separatist Uighur Muslims from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, who it says trained in militant camps in Pakistan, for the separatist campaign. In 1955 Beijing named Xinjiang as an autonomous region – back then 90 per cent of the population was non-Chinese.

The Chinese government insists it is bringing progress to a backward region and boosting it economically. China has long claimed militants in the region are trying to introduce an extreme form of Islam, but human rights groups believe Beijing exaggerates the threat to justify harsh controls.

Xinjiang, the largest province in China, accounts for 16 per cent of its land area, but only 2 per cent of the population. However, it has witnessed more than its fair share of the country’s prosecutions for “endangering state security”.

Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, told Radio Free Asia that more than 100 Uighurs had been detained in the wake of Wednesday’s attacks, though some had now been released.

“The Chinese government . . . should end its policy of systematic persecution and repression of Uighurs, and end its provocative and discriminatory propaganda,” he said.

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