HONG KONG — If there had been any doubt that the rebellion in China’s most western region has entered a new, bloodier phase, it was erased Thursday by explosions in the city of Urumqi that killed at least 31 people and injured 94.
Urumqi, a city of 3.3 million some 2,000 miles west of Beijing, is the capital of Xinjiang province, home to Uighurs and other Muslims who have long chafed under Chinese rule. Xinjiang has a violent history that stretches back centuries, but the latest attacks, on the heels of others this year, suggest that the province’s separatists are becoming more organized and are unleashing their fury against civilians, not just police and other government officials.
Michael Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong who visited Urumqi in 2009, said Xinjiang’s capital turned a corner that year when a clash between Uighurs and police became a riot that left nearly 200 people dead. “Now these incidents seem more targeted — tactics of armed groups instead of angry citizens,” he said Thursday.
Thursday’s early morning explosions took place at a busy street market, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency. Two cars with no license plates sped through crowds of shoppers while their occupants tossed explosives. The cars then crashed head-on into each other and exploded.
While the Xinjiang government didn’t blame Uighur militants for the bloodshed, it issued a statement that said the attack was “a serious violent terrorist incident of a particularly vile nature.”
One analyst went even further. “This is the single most lethal terrorist attack that China has suffered,” said Rohan Gunaratna, the head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.
Gunaratna told McClatchy he’s virtually certain the attack was carried out by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an al-Qaida-backed militant group based in Pakistan. Beijing previously blamed the group for last month’s suicide attack at an Urumqi train station, which killed three people and wounded 79.
Militants may have timed that incident to embarrass President Xi Jinping, who had visited Xinjiang a day earlier, pledging to help police “make terrorists like rats scurrying across a street.”
After Thursday’s attack, state media reported that Xi had ordered authorities “to step up patrols” and “prevent ripple effects.” He also dispatched a working group led by Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun to Xinjiang to supervise the investigation.
Xinjiang, a vast region that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, is home to more than 10 million Uighurs (sometimes spelled “Uyghurs”) who speak a Turkic language. In recent decades, they’ve become greatly outnumbered by Han Chinese, many of whom have migrated to Xinjiang to work in the region’s expanding oil and gas industry.
On his visits to Xinjiang, Davis said, he’s watched China’s steady efforts to overwhelm Uighurs’ culture and force these desert people to give up their old ways and religion. He suspects that Chinese leaders will crack down even harder after the latest attacks. “Their answer is more repression, and it does nothing to stir less resistance,” he said.
Gunaratna offered a somewhat different view. He said China had “economically developed Xinjiang tremendously” but hadn’t done enough to “engage Uighurs and build a strong partnership between them and China.”
He said China needed to build stronger relations with the United States and other countries that were dealing with Islamist terrorists. “The Chinese need to build the kind of high-grade intelligence needed to stop these attacks,” he said. “They are 20 years behind.”
In addition to the recent bloodshed in Urumqi, two other attacks in China have been blamed on “Xinjiang separatists” and put the nation on edge. In March, knife-wielding assailants killed 29 people and wounded dozens at a train station in Kunming, in southern China. Last October, three Uighurs drove a jeep into a crowd in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, killing two people and injuring 40 before setting the vehicle on fire, killing themselves.
One photo from Urumqi that Chinese state media posted Thursday on Twitter showed bodies lying on a street amid debris. Another showed a massive cloud of smoke wafting from the marketplace.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether both Uighurs and Han Chinese frequented the market. The South China Morning Post on Thursday quoted an eyewitness named Fan Fangfang as saying the market catered predominantly to Chinese.
Davis thinks it’s possible that Uighur terrorists carrying out the recent attacks are attempting to slow the migration of Han Chinese to the far west of China. “They may be aiming to make the Chinese less enthusiastic about being there,” he said.