Image: Xinjiang scene
Ng Han Guan  /  AP
A Uigher resident tries to explain to a Han Chinese patrol guard why he is selling melons on the side of the road in Kashgar, western China's Xinjiang province, on Wednesday. A recent surge in violence, the region's worst in a decade, as China hosts the Olympics far away in Beijing may be a sign that a campaign to crack down hard on separatists is backfiring.
updated 8/14/2008 5:32:00 PM ET 2008-08-14T21:32:00

A police crackdown meant to quell militants in China's rugged frontier of Xinjiang has failed to prevent a surge of attacks, and analysts say Beijing's tactics may actually be encouraging more violence among the region's usually moderate Muslims.

How China deals with Xinjiang is a concern for the rest of the world. The vast area of deserts and mountains borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and several Central Asian republics and is home to a sizable Muslim population that could be a valuable ally in the global struggle against Islamic extremism.

The latest wave of attacks on security forces — the worst in a decade — began last week, just days before the Olympics' opening ceremony on the opposite end of the country, some 1,740 miles to the east.

No group has claimed responsibility for the deadly bombings and stabbings, but police have blamed terrorists among the Uighurs — a Muslim ethnic minority of about 8 million people who have long chafed under Chinese rule. Uighurs and Kazaks established an independent state called the East Turkestan Republic in western Xinjiang in 1944-49, but the territory was retaken by China after the Communist Revolution.

Chinese officials insist relations between the Uighurs and Chinese are harmonious and that the violence is being carried out by radical fringe elements.

"The majority of people living in Xinjiang support national unification and are opposed to terrorism, extremists and separatists," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing earlier this week.

But Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, believes the violence is a sign the latest "Strike Hard" campaign is driving more Uighurs toward militant Islam. Human rights groups say what began as a campaign against organized crime, drugs and pornography has become a cover to crack down on Uighurs.

"There is extremist propaganda that is radicalizing a segment of the population, but government action itself has hastened the pace of radicalization," said Gunaratna, head of the university's International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.

Coveted region
Gunaratna said China should take a softer approach with the Uighurs and worry more about Pakistan-based militant groups, whose members slip across the border to train and recruit Uighurs.

The Uighurs have practiced Sunni Islam or the mystical Sufi tradition, but many live a moderate lifestyle, which includes drinking alcohol and allowing women to work. Men often wear skull caps, while colorful head scarves are popular with women, though it's common to see young Uighur women strutting around in designer jeans and high heels.

Some Uighurs yearn for independence, but many consider that goal unrealistic. They doubt China will ever let go of a region that's rich in minerals, coal, oil and natural gas. Xinjiang is also the country's main nuclear test site and a defensive buffer against possible attacks from the West.

One Uighur shopkeeper in Kuqa's bazaar said he would be happy under Chinese rule if the authorities allowed more religious freedom. He said the worship of Islam has been discouraged and Uighur culture has been restricted — claims the government denies.

"I don't want independence. I just want greater respect," said the merchant, who only gave part of his surname, Mehmet, because he feared retribution.

The next militants
Many Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language and whose customs and religion are distinct from the ethnic majority Han Chinese, live in poverty as the government bases troops in Xinjiang and Chinese migrants control much of the economy.

Life was harsh for the Uighurs in the 1960s and 1970s when the communists sought to wipe away ethnic minority customs deemed feudal during a period of Marxist revolutionary fervor. But the government relaxed its grip on Xinjiang in the 1980s and allowed greater cultural and religious freedom.

The government got tough again in the 1990s after a series of insurrections and bombings. Rights groups reported numerous mass arrests and mosque closures following an aggressive security sweep through the region that effectively wiped out militant groups.

A new generation of militants
Human Rights Watch reported that 9.2 percent — or more than 1,000 — of the Uighurs in prison in 2001 were sentenced for state security crimes. The U.S.-based group said the figure came from a scholarly paper found in a Chinese Ministry of Justice compendium.

"Although Uighur militant groups in Xinjiang were thoroughly crushed in the 1990s, it seems that a new generation of militants has stepped up to take their place," Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, said about the recent violence.

"The attackers are young, and apparently even included two women in Kuqa — I believe a first in the recent history of violent militancy in the region," Bequelin added.

Yitzhak Shichor, a political scientist and China specialist at the University of Haifa in Israel, also thought the recent violence in Xinjiang was a sign that Chinese security forces have been overreacting. He said China frequently urges other nations to resolve disputes with negotiation and peaceful means. It should do the same in Xinjiang by working closer with the Uighur community and religious leaders, he said, though he doubted Beijing would take that approach.

"I think following the Olympics, there will be a crackdown in Xinjiang like never before," he said. "After the Olympics, they are going to settle accounts."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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