BEIJING — Chinese authorities announced 29 more arrests Thursday in a massive crackdown in the northwestern region of Xinjiang following a series of deadly attacks blamed on Muslim extremists.
Four high-profile attacks on civilians — in Xinjiang and in two cities outside — since October have handed a major security challenge to Communist Party leader and President Xi Jinping during his first 18 months in office. The attacks have been blamed on extremists from Xinjiang's native Turkic-speaking Uighur population, seeking to overthrow Chinese rule and inspired by global jihadi ideology.
The latest crackdown followed a May 22 attack in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi in which men driving off-road vehicles and throwing explosives plowed through a crowded market, killing 39 people. Police said four suspects also were killed at the scene, and that a fifth was later caught outside Urumqi.
Since then, the government has issued a flurry of announcements citing the arrests over the past month of more than 300 suspects in Xinjiang — some of whom were detained before the market attack. Authorities said 23 extremist groups have been broken up, including a group of five allegedly plotting another bomb attack. Last week, it said 55 people charged with terrorism and other crimes were sentenced at a stadium in northern Xinjiang — including at least one sentenced to death.
The crackdown bears the hallmarks of anti-crime campaigns that formerly were common in China. They have largely been phased out after complaints they were ineffective and promoted abuses such as torture and forced confessions. Yet they remain a standard official response in Xinjiang and neighboring Tibet, accompanied by other now-rare practices such as parading the accused around in trucks and sentencing them at mass stadium gatherings.
Chinese leaders feel the need to appear tough to reassure a frightened public, especially in Xinjiang, said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.
However, Xinjiang police and prosecutors will now be under intense pressure to solve cases and obtain guilty verdicts, further chipping away at the flimsy legal protections suspects now have, Wang said.
That also increases the chances that the wrong people will be tried and sentenced, allowing the actual attackers to go free and exposing China to further attacks, she said. The campaign is also likely to increase resentments among Uighurs over their treatment under China's legal system, Wang said.
"There are grievances and this gives the perception they are not getting justice," Wang said.
Before the market bombing, three earlier attacks also were blamed on Xinjiang extremists.
An apparent suicide bombing April 30 at an Urumqi train station killed two suspected insurgents and one bystander. In March, 29 people were slashed and stabbed to death at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming. Last October, three assailants drove an SUV through crowds in front of Beijing's iconic Tiananmen Gate in October and set their vehicle alight, killing the three attackers and two tourists.
Thursday's report said the most recently detained suspects were charged with crimes, including incitement to separatism, organizing mobs to disturb social order, operating an illegal business, incitement to ethnic hatred, and ethnic discrimination.
There was no indication of any direct link to recent attacks, but those detained were described as "violent terrorist criminal suspects."
The government strictly controls information about security in Xinjiang, and little information can be obtained independently about suspects rounded up in crackdowns or the evidence against them.
Beijing says the attackers are religious extremists with ties to overseas Islamic terror groups, but has publicly shown little evidence to support that.
Activists among the native Turkic Uighur population say the unrest is fueled by resentment against settlers from China's Han majority and official discrimination and restrictions on their native culture and Islamic practices. They also say Chinese authorities label routine criminal activity or even non-violent protests as terrorist acts.
The crackdown has been accompanied by tough language from Chinese leaders.
At a top-level meeting late last month, President Xi called for "copper walls and iron barriers" as well as "nets spread from the earth to the sky" to stop terrorism, while also promising more support for education and employment in Xinjiang.