China Heightens Security in XinjiangJuly 2, 2013 in China
Following major ethnic violence and rioting last week, Chinese authorities appear to beginning a security crackdown in the remote and fractious Xinjiang province, in the far west of China. Xinjiang is the site of sporadic violence between the local Muslim Uighur population and authorities.
Paramilitary police and armoured vehicles have flooded the streets of Urumqi, the capital, and access to information in the province is even more strictly controlled than usual. Given that the 4 year anniversary of rioting that killed nearly 200 people is in 3 days, more violence and disorder is expected in the coming week. Though not commonly targeted in attacks, any foreigners in the region should exercise caution at all times and in particular avoid any demonstrations.
The most recent unrest began on Wednesday last week, in the township of Lukqun, about 200km southeast of Urumqi. Reports say a large mob, armed with knives, attacked several police stations and a government building, attacking individuals and setting police cars alight before the authorities opened fire. 35 people, including 9 security personnel, were killed in this incident. This was followed by an incident on Friday, in which more than 100 people riding motorcycles and armed with knives attacked a police station in the town of Hotan, though no-one was killed in this second incident.
Recent months have seen more occurrences of normally sporadic unrest. Of particular note is an incident at the end of April in the town of Selibuya, Kashgar province, in which 21 people died. 12 police officers were reportedly burned alive in this incident. The most serious unrest in recent years was in 2009, when nearly 200 people, mostly Han Chinese, were killed in widespread rioting.
Chinese authorities strictly control all media and information in Xinjiang, and accurately verifying facts surrounding incidents can be very difficult. Officially, Beijing blames ‘terrorists’ for any and all unrest, attributing it to separatist groups who want to establish an independent state of ‘East Turkestan’. It also typically attributes violence to the influence of foreigners in the province. In this recent incident, it has explicitly implicated the Syrian rebel movement, suggesting that the unrest was precipitated by Uighurs who have trained and fought in the Syrian civil war.
Despite the obvious bias of Chinese authorities in this matter, there is some truth to their claims that some Uighurs are connected with jihadist groups and similar. Al Qaeda has in the past threatened to attack Chinese targets following the deaths of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and over 20 Uighurs were detained following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and held in Guantanamo Bay. The small East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) is reportedly affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and is classed as a terrorist organisation by the United Nations.
Nevertheless, the attitude of the Chinese authorities is also very likely a major contributing factor in ethnic unrest. While Xinjiang province has seen major investment following China’s economic growth, little of this appears to have benefited the ethnic Uighur population. Massive resettlement of Han Chinese has dramatically changed the ethnic demographics of the province, and Uighurs complain of losing jobs, confiscation of their land, an erosion of their traditional culture and of being deprived of their religious rights.
Xinjiang is in the far west of China, and has been controlled by various Chinese empires sporadically throughout history. Following a brief period of independence, it was brought under communist Chinese control in 1949. The province is extremely rich in resources, a fact that has brought increased investment by also increased immigration. Xinjiang’s population is now 43% Uighur and 40% Han.
While not commonly targeted in any unrest, foreigners in Xinjiang should maintain caution while in the province. Any demonstrations or protests should be avoided, particularly as the authorities typically respond harshly to any unrest. Foreigners may also encounter harassment and intimidation from state authorities, and should avoid taking pictures of sensitive incidents or locations.