China blames terrorists for deadly market bombing in restless Xinjiang region

Thursday's attack was the deadliest so far this year and comes amid a security crackdown in western China where ethnic minority Uighurs bristle under Beijing's rule. 

By , Staff writer

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    People look on at a street cordoned off by police after a blast in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region May 22, 2014. Explosives hurled from two vehicles, which plowed into an open market in China's troubled Xinjiang, killed 31 people on Thursday, state media reported, the deadliest act of violence in the region in years.
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The explosions in an outdoor market in western China this morning come amid a recent government crackdown on Uighurs, a Muslim minority. Experts and rights activists are drawing connections between China's repressive policies toward ethnic Uighurs and the recent spate of deadly attacks, which China has blamed on radical separatists. 

Today's incident, in which explosives were thrown from two SUVs as they plowed through an outdoor market in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province, killed 31 people and wounded 94. It was the deadliest of several recent attacks blamed on Uighur extremists. 

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A bombing and knife attack at Urumqi's train station at the end of April, on the heels of President Xi Jingping's high-profile visit to the region, killed three people – two of them the attackers – and wounded 79. In March, 29 people were stabbed to death in the southwestern city of Kunming, far from Xinjiang. China said the attackers came from Xinjiang. In October, five people were killed when a car was set on fire in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. (The Associated Press has a full timeline of attacks here.)

The New York Times, citing Chinese news outlet Tianshan Net, reports that today's attack occurred in Urumqi's Shayibake District, which is inhabited almost entirely by ethnic Han, the dominant ethnicity in China. Other parts of Urumqi are inhabited by Uighurs, who have steadily been displaced by Han migrants to the city. 

The Uighurs are a Muslim Turkic ethnic group living primarily in Xinjiang. An ancient Silk Road trade hub, the region identifies more with its Central Asian neighbors to the west than with Beijing. It was briefly independent in the early 1900s, but returned to full Chinese control in 1949. Beijing's efforts to stamp out separatist sentiment, in part by encouraging Han migration and building military garrison towns, have fueled grievances there.

Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the exiled World Uighur Congress, told Reuters that Beijing's local policies needed consideration. "The volatility of the situation and Beijing's repressive policies in the area have a direct relationship to this," Mr. Rexit said in an e-mail. "I urge Beijing not to use this incident as an excuse to expand repressive policies, and instead to adjust policies to ameliorate a deteriorating situation."

In the past, authorities have blamed attacks on security forces on a militant group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) (East Turkestan is commonly used by Uighurs to describe Xinjiang). (A briefing on Uighur issues in China from The Christian Science Monitor available here.)

The Chinese government has labeled the perpetrators of the latest violence "terrorists." Reuters reports that Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing today, "The Chinese government has the confidence and the ability to combat the terrorists. These terrorists are swollen with arrogance. Their schemes will not succeed."

Two days ago, the Chinese government sentenced 39 people, all of them with ethnic Uighur names, to 15 years in prison, according to Reuters: 

They were accused of crimes ranging from inciting violence and distributing recordings with extremist content to illegally making firearms and promoting ethnic hatred, the Legal Daily newspaper, run by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said.

"All those who dare to challenge the power of the state or the lives of the people, will be severely punished in accordance with the law without lenience," the paper quoted a judge of Xinjiang's high court criminal tribunal as saying.

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Courts and public security bodies in Xinjiang, among other government agencies, have vowed to crack down on video and audio recordings they see as spreading extremist religious ideology or inciting violence.

As many as 232 people were caught in that crackdown, with 71 of them criminally detained, the Legal Daily said.

The New York Times reports that the Supreme Court described the cases of the 39 as " 'model cases' for terrorism convictions."

Chinese authorities are bracing for an escalation in the coming weeks. July 5 marks the 5-year anniversary of mass riots in Urumqi between Uighurs and Han that killed 200 people, according to the Times. 

“Since the July 5 incident Uighur-Han relations have markedly deteriorated,” Yang Shu, Director of Institute for Central Asia Studies of Lanzhou University in northwest China, told the Times. “The July 5 incident was a watershed.”

Since then, restrictions in Xinjiang, where information and movement are tightly controlled, have grown. The Monitor described it as seeming to be "under military occupation."

Rohan Gunaratna, a professor at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University who studies terrorism in Asia, told the Times that the Chinese government's tactics have prevented it from being able to utilize the local population as a source of intelligence on militants' plans. Repression has led to them viewing groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement with sympathy.

Christopher Johnson, a former China analyst at the CIA, told Reuters that China's leadership would have to eventually acknowledge its policies are exacerbating the problem. "I'm kind of doubtful that they are going to announce some sort of more liberal policy," said Johnson, who now works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But sooner or later I think they are going to have to come to that reality because the evidence is just smacking them in the face." 

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