Global Politics

Why is Xinjiang such a problem for China?

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CNSphoto/Reuters

People look on at a street cordoned off by police after Thursday's blast in a market in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in western China.

It was the worst incident of violence in Xinjiang in five years. On Thursday morning at an outdoor market in the capital city of Urumqi, the attackers drove two vehicles into crowds of people, tossed explosives out the windows, and then smashed into each other, with at least one of the vehicles blowing up.

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More than 30 people were killed, more than 90 injured. And many of them, according to a witness quoted by the Sinosphere blog, were “elderly grandpas and grannies” at market early.

Xinjiang has seen its share of unrest over the years. But this latest attack seems particularly vicious. And it followed a string of violent incidents that Chinese authorities have blamed on millitant separatists from Xinjiang, the homeland of 10 million mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking, ethnic Uighurs.

Uighurs make up less than half of the population of Xinjiang today. The Han Chinese population, China's dominant ethnic group, that has moved into Xinjiang from other parts of the country now makes up about 40 percent of the population. In the 1950s, about 5 percent of Xinjiang was Han. Relations between the Uighurs on the one hand, and the Han population and Chinese security forces on the other hand, have deteriorated. That has been especially true since the deadly riots broke out in Urumqi in the summer of 2009.

Thursday's bombing attack in Urumqi was only the latest example of what has to be an alarming trend for Chinese authorities. In March, there was a massive stabbing at the Kunming railway station. At the end of April, there was another attack at a station in Urumqi. And just before that, three Chinese officials were reportedly murdered in Xinjiang.

“Absent hard evidence of who is actually responsible for these incidents, it's difficult to draw a conclusion,” says Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch. “But it is not hard to document ongoing and serious restrictions on Uighurs' expressions of cultural identity, their religious practices, [and] essentially, discrimination in the kind of economic development strategy that's being pursued.”

“Uighurs will now say that they feel like strangers in their own land,” Richardson says.

No group has claimed responsibility for this most recent attack, and the same goes for other recent recent attacks in Xinjiang. But there is a shadowy organization that Chinese officials have often accused of committing violent acts, called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. However, it is far from clear how organized ETIM is, or how closely connected it might be with extremist groups based outside of China.

Richardson says part of the problem lies in the way Chinese authorities have characterized the threat from Uighur extremists.

“It's very hard to give those allegations real credibility, in part, because the Chinese government has so systematically conflated peaceful expressions of dissent by Uighurs with those of people who actually do have a violent or a pro-independence stance,” she says.

Take the case of the jailed Uighur economist Ilham Tohti, Richardson points out. Tohti had publicly renounced independence [for Xinjiang], “and is now being charged with 'sepratism.'”

“It's incresingly difficult to tell what, in the Chinese government's view, does not constitute 'sepratism,'” Richardson adds.

Richardson reckons some high level Chinese officials are aware that the government's policies in Xinjiang have failed, but she says there is no indication that things will change anytime soon. And today's bombing, she says, is likely to lead to more "strike hard" tactics by the government and, in turn, greater resentment and frustration on the part of the Uighur population.

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