Uneasy calm settled on the streets of the provincial capital city of Urumqi in the western Chinese territory of Xinjiang as paramilitary police and dozens of armored vehicles entered the region Saturday.
Chinese President Xi Jinping ramped up rhetoric against separatists among Xinjiang’s Muslim Uighur minority and ordered tighter security, following at least two outbreaks of violence that claimed the lives of 35 people.
Perpetrated by knife-wielding motorcycle gangs, several bloody incidents occurred last week ahead of the four-year anniversary of race riots on July 5, 2009, that killed hundreds of both Han Chinese and ethnic Uighur residents.
Armed police officers board trucks to patrol in Urumqi, western China’s Xinjiang province, Sunday. (AP-Yonhap News)
China has traditionally blamed violence in Xinjiang on Islamic separatists who want to establish an independent state of “East Turkestan.”
This time Beijing laid the blame squarely on terrorists in Syria, of which the al-Qaida-affiliated Al Nursa Front is the most notorious, but the charge of a Syria connection still comports with a common government narrative of portraying Xinjiang’s violence as coming from other countries, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, rather than homegrown agitation.
While about 90 percent of China is ethnic Han, more than 40 percent of Xinjiang’s 22 million people are Uighurs. Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said the recent violence has nothing to do with terrorism.
“Uighurs already find it very difficult to get passports, how can they run off to Syria?” Raxit said, according to media reports.
The World Uyghur Congress says it is a peaceful group supporting religious tolerance. It claims to represent a broad cross section of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and around the world. The group receives much of its funding from the U.S. government’s National Endowment for Democracy.
China ordered its paramilitary personnel to patrol around the clock in Xinjiang before the fourth anniversary of the Urumqi race riots.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying all but named Al Nursa rebels in Syria as the forces behind the East Turkestan movement and the most recent series of attacks, according to press reports.
Hua said that the government “also noted that in recent years East Turkestan terrorist forces and international terrorist organizations have been uniting, not only threatening China’s national security but also the peace and stability of relevant countries and regions.”
By Philip Iglauer (email@example.com