Western China Hit by Separatist Violence
As Beijing hosts the Olympic Games, the western China province of Xinjiang has been under attack from ethnic Muslim Uighur separatists.
A week after carrying out one of the deadliest ever attacks in Xinjiang, Uighur militants launched a series of coordinated attacks in the city of Kuqa.
The attacks began at 2:30 a.m. local time, when an explosion at a public security bureau killed a security guard. Six hours later, militants began attacking government buildings with homemade explosives. In all, 12 attacks were carried out by a suspected 15 people. Ten of the attackers are dead; eight were killed by police, while two killed themselves.
The Chinese government had stepped up security following last week’s attacks. They consider the Uighur militants, ethnic Turkish Muslims fighting for the creation of an independent state called East Turkistan, to be the country’s greatest terrorist threat.
There has been small-scale violence in Xinjiang for decades, but the Olympics seems to have spurred an increase. The militants “want to use the Olympic stage to enlarge the impact,” said Wang Wei, vice president of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee.
There are two primary Uighur militant groups, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and the Turkistan Islamic Party. The two groups are responsible for a wave of violence since the beginning of the year, though it is not always certain which group is responsible for each attack.
In January, Chinese security forces raided an East Turkistan Islamic Movement hideout in the Xinjiang capital, killing two and arresting 15.
In March, the Chinese government announced that it had foiled a terrorist plot to blow up a plane flying from Xinjiang to Beijing. However, the Chinese allowed the flight to continue after a brief stop and did reveal the suspects, leading many to believe that the plot was fabricated to justify a crackdown on the Uighur.
“The real goal of the Chinese government is to organise a terrorist attack so that it can increase its crackdown on the Uighur people,” Rebiya Kadeer, president of the Uyghur American Association, told Al Jazeera.
However, the fears of the Chinese government were proven correct on August 4, just four days before the start of the Olympics. Two Uighur militants drove a truck into a gas station in Kashgar and launched a grenade attack, killing 16 Chinese police officers.
“Western security experts told The Times nearly a year ago that the brewing discontent in the westernmost Chinese region was not to be taken lightly,” wrote Jane Macartney of The Times of London. “This has proved to be well grounded.”
Three days later, on the eve of the opening ceremonies, a Uighur militant group—reportedly the Turkistan Islamic Party—released a video threatening to attack public transportation in Beijing. The threat raised the possibility that the violence could extend beyond Xinjiang, but most security doubt that the Uighurs have the ability to successfully attack Beijing.
“I think the actual Olympics themselves, the venues, the guests, the athletes, are going to be safe,” said Drew Thompson, director of China studies at the Nixon Center.
The Uighur are a Turkic Muslim people with cultural ties to the people of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They live in the East Turkistan region, which came under Chinese control and renamed Xinjiang in 1884.
There were two independence movements in the 1930 and 40s that briefly established an East Turkistan Republic. In 1949, at the end of the Chinese Civil War, it was annexed by the People’s Republic of China and has remained under Chinese control ever since.
The Uighurs feel their culture and religion is threatened by the Chinese government, which maintains strict control on schools and churches in Xinjiang. Human Rights Watch describes a “multi-tiered system of surveillance, control, and suppression of religious activity aimed at Xinjiang’s Uighurs.”
Amnesty International charged the government with “gross violations of human rights” toward the Uighurs. It writes, “These gross violations of human rights are occurring amidst growing ethnic unrest fuelled by unemployment, discrimination and curbs on fundamental freedoms. Over the past ten years the local ethnic population has witnessed a steady erosion of its social, economic and cultural rights.”