A group of security forces patrol central Kashi, Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on Tuesday. Photo: AFP
Terrorists who spilled blood and bombed a building last month have again shaken Uyghur and Han residents in two cities along the ancient Silk Road in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
In Kashi, also known as Kashgar, the blood has been cleaned and damaged buildings have boarded up. The suspects of the violence have been arrested or killed. Recovering victims are wondering what triggered the random attacks and their anger is tinged with deep sadness.
Heavy security now blankets both Kashi, the westerly terminus of China's Silk Road, and the city of Hotan, a border town with Pakistan about 500 kilometers down the Silk Road.
Last weekend, in Kashi, just before the beginning of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, terrorists hijacked a car and used it as a weapon to run down pedestrians. They also set fire to a restaurant and hacked people to death. At least 14 civilians were murdered and 40 injured, mostly Han people. Eight of the 10 rioters were killed by police.
Two weeks prior, a police station in Hotan came under a coordinated attack by 18 Uyghurs armed with knives and explosives. They killed four people including two women. The police shot and killed 14 attackers and arrested four others.
The local government said religious extremists, led by militants and trained in overseas terrorist camps, were behind the attacks that targeted Han people.
"Captured suspects confessed that their leaders had earlier trained in Pakistan and joined the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Kashi government said on its website.
"The intention behind the terror attacks was to sabotage inter-ethnic unity and harm social stability, provoking ethnic hatred and creating ethnic conflicts," the Web posting said.
The Germany-based separatist group, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) immediately capitalized on news of the attack with a different story and a demand for an independent investigation.
A WUC spokesman said that 20 Uyghur people were killed and 12 injured, including three who are still in critical condition.
Authorities in Xinjiang have dismissed this version of events.
Xinjiang borders eight countries
The vast Xinjiang region makes up one-sixth of China's total territory. It borders Pakistan, Russia, India, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
The region is home to multiple ethnic groups; by far the largest ethnic minority is Muslim Uyghur.
About 80 percent of the 600,000 residents in Kashi are Muslim Uyghurs.
The Secretary of the Communist Party of China's Kashi Committee, Zhang Jian, said the city has long been targeted by terrorists, with 350 attacks resulting in 60 deaths of government officials and civilians since the 1990s.
The conflicts in Xinjiang mainly revolve around tensions between ethnic Han people, who make up more than 95 percent of the country's population, and Uyghur, who often look, speak and worship differently.
A mixture of poverty, unemployment and miscommunication has fueled the divide.
While the violence has made headlines at home and abroad, the Kashi government is determined to focus on the region's continued economic development. City officials believe economic prosperity will fill the apparent vacuum and leave no space for unrest and extremism.
"The violence has seriously affected economic development and social order in the city, but normal life has returned and people are going about their business," Maimaitiming Baikeli, Kashi's mayor, said during a news conference.
Despite assurances of a return to normalcy, a Global Times reporter of Han descent encountered stares and glares from Uyghur people as he walked through the crowded Grand Bazaar market in Hotan.
The reporter's treatment at the market's police station, which was attacked on July 18, was harsher. "You go where you are led, or stay in your hotel. It's dangerous here," warned a police officer who also required the reporter delete the one photograph he had taken of the police station.
In Kashi a silent tension also hangs in the air. People go about their daily life but the presence of heavily armed police and armored cars dampens the spirit.
A number of checkpoints have been set up and people are required to show their ID cards as they enter or leave the city. A nighttime curfew remains in force downtown.
Two days after the violence on July 31, vendors working the city's downtown Xiangxie Street, where attackers stormed a restaurant, killed the owner and a waiter and set it on fire, are still haunted by the horrible memory.
Run like a mad cat
"When I saw them stabbing people, I immediately ran away like a mad cat," a witness, Ma Jun said, adding that he later helped lead police to the scene.
He thinks the attack was well planned. "Look carefully. The restaurant is located at the end of the street and the doors are blocked by merchandise. Once they started killing, there was nowhere to run," he added.
Some Uyghur seem indifferent to the heavy security, which they don't see as being here to protect them. "We feel safe with the presence of the police," said Abuduweili who runs a bookstore near the Id Kah Mosque. "But without them, we also feel safe," he quickly added.
Along with the government's economic prosperity programs, it has enacted preferential policies and regulations favoring minorities. They are allowed to have more than one child, they benefit from affirmative action programs that make it easier to enter universities and allowances are made for language differences.
Yet the policies have not been a panacea for the region. Some say they are unfair and inherently discriminatory, while others suggest they don't go nearly far enough in addressing apparent inequities.
While Xinjiang's economy booms, an increasing number of Han people are moving to the region, leading some Uyghur to say they're being shut out of the best opportunities. Some Han people meanwhile resent being excluded from social programs or having to pay taxes that support special privileges for Uyghur.
"The local Han and the Uyghur have been living together for a very long time and there's no reason why we should favor one over the other," said Ma Dazheng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Making university entrance exams easier for Uyghur "is a good example of how affirmative action starts with good intentions but fails to make almost no one content," said Ma.
Yet many experts believe chronic unemployment among Xinjiang's college graduates is a threat to the region's long-term stability and development.
The Xinjiang government will start another program this September that it hopes will make a positive difference. It plans to send 10,000 unemployed college graduates, mostly Uyghur who finished school after 2002, to 19 provinces and municipalities to receive job training in universities and with companies.
Despite the government's apparent good intentions at social engineering and its belief that education and improved living standard will fill a void, the region is a roiling cauldron filled with historic grievances and imported rage from the extremist Muslim world.
Never ending sabotage
"Terrorist groups such as the WUG and ETIM, as well as separatist groups within China, have never stopped sabotaging attempts to improve things," said Li Wei, director of the Anti-Terrorism Institute at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
The 18 Uyghur men who attacked the police station in Hotan were reported to have spoken with an accent unfamiliar in Xinjiang. They also were reported to have raised a "jihadist flag" on the roof of the station. The attacks in Kashi were said to be linked to terrorist groups in Pakistan.
"Due to their religious and linguistic connections, some Uyghur are at risk of being influenced by terrorist groups such as ETIM," said Pan Zhiping, director of the Institute of Central Asia at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences.
Yet many experts suggest that language and religion are not the only issues. In an office in Hotan's Nu'erbage district, 67-year-old Dawuti Aji of the Aitilaisi Mosque agreed that life for the elites of Uyghur society has significantly improved. The employment and living standards of Muslims visiting his mosque, he said, are "just so so," before steering the conversation to another topic during a talk with journalists.
Maimaitiabula Rouzituohati, a young Uyghur teacher at school, said joblessness makes Uyghur vulnerable to extremist teachings. "There were some underground Koran classrooms, where separatism was spread to younger people."
Director Pan takes a much stricter view of the issue and blames national leaders for not being tough enough. "Many religious leaders with separatist ideas were wrongly released after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and became leaders of separatism movement," he said.
A lot of often-used rhetoric can also be heard from government officials in Xinjiang, who are charged with protecting lives and sovereignty.
Zhang Chunxian, Party secretary of Xinjiang, had this to say while announcing another crackdown on religious extremism following the recent attacks.
"We will resolutely combat religious extremists and curb illegal religious activities," Zhang warned, adding that the "people of Xinjiang should recognize that terrorists are the 'common enemy of all ethnic groups."
Zhang's tough talk is supported by Juma Tayir, the Imam at the Id Kah mosque, who told reporters Muslim extremists don't represent Islam. "Islam doctrines exhort peace and solidarity. We are firmly against illegal religious activities and acts that split the motherland," he said.