Violence erupted Tuesday in the Xinjiang region of northwest China, with at least 10 civilians and two assailants killed in an attack that the state-run Xinhua news service blamed on “rioters.” State media said that a mob armed with knives attacked victims on a street in Yecheng, a county near China’s borders with Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The region is largely populated by Uighurs, a Turkic, predominantly Muslim ethnic group that has at times resisted Chinese rule. Xinhua reported that police shot and killed two attackers and “are pursuing the rest.”
State media reports of the attack offered few details and the local government has yet to give an official statement. The Global Times, a tabloid owned by the Communist Party, reported that authorities “blamed violent terrorists for the attack” but did not reveal their numbers and gave no details about the cause of the violence. Xinjiang officials have blamed similar attacks on terrorists who want to create an independent Uighur state. Overseas Uighur activist groups say those official reports should be treated with caution given the lack of transparency.
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Last summer, rioters stormed a police station in the Xinjiang city of Hotan, an attack that left 18 dead. Less than two weeks later, Kashgar was hit by a pair of attacks. Two men hijacked a truck, stabbed the driver and then drove the vehicle into a crowd of people, killing eight and injuring more than two dozen. A day later, a group of men armed with knives stormed out of a restaurant and began stabbing people, killing six and injuring 12. Tuesday’s bloodshed was centered in a business district of Yecheng, a largely Uighur county administered by Kashgar, 150 miles to the northwest. Like Kashgar, Yecheng, which is known as Kargilik in Uighur, has seen episodes of violence, particularly in 1998. That year authorities say the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group the U.S. State Department put on a terrorist watch list, blew up a natural gas pipeline in Yecheng county, injuring three people. Later in that year, a series of explosions destroyed several buildings in Yecheng, including the home of the local police chief.
In 2008, shortly before the start of the Beijing Olympics, two Uighur men drove a truck into a group of border police on morning exercises in Kashgar, killing 17 and injuring 15. One year later, Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi was hit by deadly race riots. Young Uighur men went on a rampage, stabbing and clubbing non-Uighurs. In the following days, thousands of Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in Urumqi and China as a whole, retaliated, assaulting Uighurs on the street. The government says nearly 200 people were killed, most of them Han.
That violence, which the authorities allege was directed from overseas, led to a massive crackdown, with widespread arrests and an influx of paramilitary police. At the same time, the government renewed longstanding efforts to boost Xinjiang’s economy. President Hu Jintao pledged in 2010 that Xinjiang’s economy would catch up with the national average by 2015. Kashgar has been made into a economic-development zone, with special policies to encourage business and help the flow of aid from more developed regions on the coast via a government revenue-sharing program. On Monday, the government opened a $578 million highway linking Kashgar with Yecheng, part of a development effort that saw spending on transportation increase by 43% in Xinjiang last year, Xinhua reported.
But Uighurs complain that they miss out on much of the benefits of such development efforts. They face widespread discrimination in the workplace, and say that economic opportunity has disproportionately fallen to Han Chinese, whose numbers in Xinjiang have expanded in recent decades. “Xinjiang’s problem isn’t a lack of money,” Ilham Tohti, an outspoken Uighur economics professor at Beijing’s Minzu University of China, told me in 2010 . “It’s how it is allocated.” Rapid growth has helped the government cultivate support nationwide, but it has yet to provide a ready solution in Xinjiang.