Xinhua reports that 27 people were killed in riots in Xinjiang on Wednesday morning:
The riots happened at around 6 a.m. in Lukqun township of Shanshan County in Turpan Prefecture.
Knife-wielding mobs attacked the township’s police stations, the local government building and a construction site, stabbing at people and setting fire to police cars, officials with Xinjiang’s regional committee of the Communist Party of China confirmed.
Seventeen people had been killed — including nine policemen or security guards and eight civilians — before police opened fire and shot dead 10 rioters, the officials said on condition of anonymity. [Source]
A similar battle in April left 21 dead amid controversy over whether terrorists were involved, as officials claimed. American calls for a transparent investigation prompted accusations from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the U.S. was “reversing black and white [and] refusing to condemn violent terrorist incidents, and instead, making wild accusations about Chinese policy toward ethnic minorities.”
Updated at 11:15 a.m., PST: No immediate trigger for the incident has yet been officially identified, but an anonymous local official suggested to Global Times that the incident could be connected to an attack on a store earlier this year, or to the approach of Ramadan or the anniversary of 2009 riots in Urumqi in which 197 were killed. The New York Times’ Chris Buckley examined the backdrop of mounting tensions over religious restrictions and the tendency for Han migrants to reap disproportionate benefits from the region’s economic development:
“It’s inconvenient to talk,” said an official in the propaganda office of Shanshan County, which includes Lukqun Township in its jurisdiction. “Leaders are all out, it’s inconvenient to take interviews.”
[…] The bloodshed struck a part of Xinjiang where relations between Uighur and Han people have traditionally been relatively untroubled, said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy organization based in New York.
“But the tensions been escalating in recent years,” said Mr. Bequelin, who takes a particular interest in Xinjiang. “The tensions are linked to the introduction of policies that call for much finer control and monitoring of local Uighur affairs by officials. You have a lot of rehousing and relocation there, too.”
The government has blamed past violence in Xinjiang on groups it accuses of using terror to seek independence for the region, including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. But advocates of Uighur self-determination and some foreign scholars say the discontent has local causes and is not orchestrated from abroad. [Source]
China has responded with a heightened security presence, as Mark MacKinnon described at The Globe and Mail:
Some reports said Shanshan was under “martial law” late Wednesday, with police openly displaying weapons as they patrolled the streets.
[…] The situation was very tense when The Globe and Mail visited Urumqi earlier this month. The police station near the city’s main mosque and bazaar was guarded by a unit of riot cops who were deployed into the street outside with shields raised and assault rifles visibly ready.
Outside the city, a squad of Chinese special forces troops conducted drills beside a highway tollbooth, their training and ferocity put right in front of each car as it pulled to a mandatory stop. [Source]
While this approach may appear counterproductive, Chinese experts quoted by Global Times argued that recent incidents show it has not gone far enough:
Li Wei, an expert on anti-terrorism with the Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times that with police reinforcing their strength in southern Xinjiang, terrorists sought to launch attacks in areas with relatively weak anti-terrorism measures. “They are also trying to arouse panic in other parts of the region,” he said.
Pan Zhiping, a research fellow with the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that the attack was a bid by terrorists to show that they are “willing to do anything anywhere” by starting chaos and panic in “peaceful” eastern Xinjiang, and exhibited the logic of “jihad.”
[…] During the attack on April 23, only one of the police officers, who rushed to the scene after hearing the crime report, carried a firearm.
Regarding this as a weak link in anti-terrorism efforts, Li noted that the build-up of rapid response forces and professional anti-terrorism forces at the grassroots level as well as better equipment are key ways to stamp out the threats. [Source]