BEIJING — A riot and a series of bomb attacks in China's northwest province of Xinjiang have drawn world attention to Beijing's longstanding attempts to repress any rebellion by Muslims in the distant region.
Three bomb attacks, apparently by the Turkic-speaking minority Uighurs, blew apart buses within minutes of one another in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, only hours after the memorial for Deng Xiao-ping in Beijing last Tuesday.
"The timing of the bombings was geared toward sending a clear message to Beijing that the people of Xinjiang have been unhappy with Deng's policies," says Dru Gladney, a senior researcher at the East-West Center in Hawaii.
The attacks may indicate a renewed campaign by rebels representing the Uighurs, the minority people who inhabit the mountains, deserts, and steppes of Xinjiang and who resent the wealth, power, and privileges of Han Chinese migrants.
Beijing has increased the already-massive security forces in the region. The state press has reported almost nothing about the incident.
The bomb attacks came just weeks after the government closed off Yining, a town near Xinjiang's border with Kazakstan, when Muslim youths started a riot that led to the deaths of a number of Chinese settlers, said diplomats monitoring the area.
"Just sending in more troops is not going to solve the problem," says Professor Gladney, an expert on China's 20 million Muslims.
"It only makes the minorities in Xinjiang more disgruntled."
Although Deng's death may have triggered the latest unrest, his two-decade-long rule saw limited liberalizations, following earlier campaigns that could be described as attempted "cultural genocide" of the area's Muslim minorities.
After the Red Army moved into Xinjiang in the late 1940s, ending a brief period of independence for East Turkestan, Chinese leader Mao Zedong presided over the razing of mosques, the execution of local Muslim leaders, and the collectivization of the economy.
Applying policies carried out in Tibet, Mao moved to erase the area's native religion, customs, and culture.
Although Deng later eased religious restrictions in Xinjiang, he continued government support for the migration of Han Chinese, who make up more than 90 percent of China's populace, into the border regions.
Long-held resentments among local Muslims, combined with a steady influx of Hans, combined to trigger an explosive clash of civilizations.
The most recent outbreak of violence is "not an isolated incident, but part of a continuing series of deep ethnic tensions," says a Western official.
He said that Uighurs today account for only one-fifth of Urumqi's populace, and added that as Xinjiang becomes more Chinese, the government has been widening its clampdown on the building of new mosques and religious schools.
At the same time, the benefits of Deng's economic reforms have largely flowed to Chinese settlers, not Xinjiang's Muslims, says the official.
"The new high-rises, schools, and businesses in Urumqi are being built by Han Chinese for Han Chinese," he says, as the Muslim quarter of the city stagnates.
"The People's Liberation Army is well-armed and distributed throughout the region," says the official. "The Uighurs have nothing to fight back with except propaganda and small-scale guerrilla warfare."
Deng's moves to open China's borders with its neighbors have succeeded in boosting trade in Xinjiang, but they have also allowed the Uighurs to have contacts with compatriots who fled China during the violence of Mao's rule.
The creation of Muslim-ruled independent republics from the ashes of Soviet Central Asia has opened a pipeline for the smuggling of Islamic fundamentalist religious materials and other contraband into Xinjiang, say Western and Chinese officials.
There are at least five Islamic groups based outside China that support the setting up of an independent East Turkestan in Xinjiang, Gladney says. He says that the Uighur diaspora extends from Kazakstan to Turkey to Germany and New York.
He adds that the stepped-up terrorist campaign and the increasing sophistication of the anti-Chinese attacks point toward "outside groups" supporting, arming, and training Xinjiang's Muslims on a very limited scale.
A diplomat from one of the former Soviet Central Asian republics says, however, that most Uighurs abroad do not back Xinjiang's secession.
He also says that the governments of Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan, which border Xinjiang, do not want to fuel the fire of separatism among China's Muslims.
He says that although Uighurs have been voted into the parliaments of the two new republics, "we are small countries, and do not want any cross-border conflicts with the Chinese giant."
Gladney says it was unclear how much support the violent campaign for independence had from the majority of Xinjiang's Muslims.
"What many Uighurs want most is a greater voice in their affairs," he says. "They want freedom to build mosques, the cleaning up of nuclear test sites in Xinjiang, and a more equal slice of the economic pie."
He also says, though, that rather than opening new talks with Xinjiang's increasingly angry Muslims, Beijing has fallen back on Deng's practice of applying military solutions to political and social unrest.
"So far, there has been no sign that the post-Deng leadership will try more creative solutions to inter-ethnic clashes," Gladney says, "but many Muslims in Xinjiang are hoping for that."
[Wang Lequan, Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang, said in the Feb. 24 edition of the Xinjiang Daily those who endanger state security should be punished severely, the Associated Press reported. Mr. Wang said officials should "clearly recognize the reactionary nature and threat of national separatism and illegal religious activities."]