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Calm returns to Chinese Muslim city

With two audacious attacks in a week and online videos threatening the Beijing Olympics, Uighur extremists in Xinjiang may be trying to use the games as a way out of obscurity.
Image: Niujie Mosque
A view of Beijing's Niujie Mosque, the city's oldest mosque and spiritual home to 10,000 muslims living in the area.Alex Hofford / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Donkeys pulled melon-laden carts through the streets and women sold bowls of yogurt Monday in the market of this mostly Muslim city in a remote corner of China, the day after militant bombings left a dozen people dead.

But underneath the apparent return to normal life hides a seething anger among the region's ethnic Uighurs toward Chinese immigrants, whom many here see as symbols of the government's oppression, residents and experts say.

With two audacious attacks in a week and the appearance online of videos threatening the Beijing Olympics, Uighur extremists in Xinjiang may be trying to use the games as a way to force themselves out of obscurity into the world's view.

Few people overseas know much about the Uighurs. Most of the world's attention goes to China's other major restless minority group, the Tibetans. Their cause is championed by a charismatic, media-savvy religious leader, the Dalai Lama, and Hollywood stars like Richard Gere.

The Uighurs have no such leader or star power behind them. And the foreign media rarely venture out to far-flung Xinjiang, a sprawling territory of mountains and deserts on the edge of Central Asia that China hopes will yield huge amounts of oil and natural gas.

But the remote region grabbed headlines last Friday — just four days before the Olympics began some 1,740 miles to the east in Beijing.

Bombing spree
In Xinjiang's Kashgar, a city near the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, two attackers rammed a truck into a group of police who they then attacked with homemade bombs and knives, killing 16. No group claimed responsibility.

Another group struck early Sunday morning in west-central Xinjiang. Bombers hit 17 sites — including a police station, government building, bank and shops — in the ancient Silk Road city of Kuqa.

Police said 10 assailants — including one woman — were killed along with a security guard and a bystander. Another of the attackers, a 15-year-old girl, was injured, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Anti-government violence has flared in Xinjiang for years. But Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, said Sunday's attacks were more highly organized.

"It presents several new aspects which were not present in previous incidents in Xinjiang," Bequelin said. "One is the sophisticated coordination of the attacks: It was not just one attack. It's a string of bombings that requires much more planning and a larger organization to carry out especially at the time of the Olympics when the security is so high."

Government crackdowns often silence the Uighurs or discourage them from speaking out. Most will only speak to reporters on condition of anonymity.

'I don't know'
After the Kuqa attacks, groups of Uighurs in the city of 450,000 people strolled around the streets looking at the damage. Their Chinese neighbors appeared grim and were quick to denounce the violence. But many of the Uighurs seemed amused and cheerful. When asked if they endorsed the attacks, they wouldn't answer the question or reply, "I don't know."

That was the answer given — after a grin and a chuckle — on Monday by a merchant walking through Kuqa's market, which was bustling with life again after the city was shut down by security forces most of Sunday because of the attacks.

"If you look at the streets, everything seems calm and peaceful," said the merchant, who would only identify himself as Amar because he feared retribution. "The Uighurs are driving cars and motorcycles. They have shops. But behind it all, the situation is different. People are really angry."

He accused the Chinese of restricting the study and practice of Islam. He also said Uighurs suffered job discrimination and were discouraged from using their Turkic language.

"If you are a Muslim, you are already a criminal suspect in the eyes of the Chinese," he said.

The Uighurs suffered greatly in the 1960s and 1970s when the government — caught up in Marxist revolutionary fervor — viewed religion as well as minority languages and cultures as divisive remnants of feudalism that should be abolished. In the 1980s, the government adopted a more liberal political and cultural policy in Xinjiang. But Beijing resorted to a hardline policy in the mid 1990s after scattered incidents of unrest.

The tough measures continue today, and may fuel support for the Turkestan Islamic Party, a group experts say might have links to al-Qaida in Pakistan, though it is small and has limited capacity to launch attacks beyond its region. The group released two videos in recent weeks threatening to attack the Olympics.

Dru Gladney, an expert on Uighurs at the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College, said not enough is known about the recent attacks to conclude the Turkestan Islamic Party was behind them.

"There may be just a rising sense of resentment and disgruntlement that have led to these attacks on the police," he said, noting that government surveillance of Uighurs and the number of arrests had increased in the lead up to the games.

Mu Tielifuhasimu, commissioner of the region's administrative office, told a news conference Monday that the attackers were only bent on terrorizing society. He insisted that so far, there was no apparent link to the Olympics.

Mu said the majority of the Uighurs are happy in the region and enjoy the freedom to practice their religion. "The overall situation is extremely good," he said.

The official, who is a Uighur, said that decades of economic development and infrastructure construction in the area has greatly benefited the minorities, who make up about 70 percent of Xinjiang's population. He said money from oil and natural gas projects and other industries have fueled a building boom for schools and hospitals.

"This is the best period in history in terms of education, medical care and religion," Mu said.