Xi’s Gloves-Off Xinjiang Strategy Challenged by Violence

Less than 24 hours after President Xi Jinping reached a $400 billion energy deal with Russia that showcased China’s increasing global influence, he got a reminder of the challenges to his sway at home.

Yesterday’s bomb attack in a market in Urumqi, the Xinjiang-region capital so far west it’s nearer to Kabul than Beijing, left at least 31 dead. Assailants plowed two vehicles into crowds and set off explosives, two days after courts sentenced 39 people to jail for spreading terrorism in a region that once had a Muslim majority before decades of ethnic Chinese immigration.

The bloodshed underscored challenges to Xi’s “strike first’’ approach toward those resorting to violence as the government seeks to clamp down on what it says is a separatist movement in Xinjiang. The danger now is a cycle of violence that undermines economic development in the western region, amid a broader slowdown in Chinese growth.

The government's ``high-pressure policy in Xinjiang has descended to a vicious circle,” said Hu Xingdou, professor of economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “More crackdowns will breed more violent attacks.”

Shifting Violence

The bombing offered new evidence of a shift in Xinjiang from violent street clashes between ethnic Uighurs and the Han Chinese majority to deadly attacks on civilians. That will distract the government from its policy of trying to boost the region’s economy even as it places new restrictions on residents there, according to James Leibold, a senior lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

“There’s been a shift in objective from attacking government buildings and police stations to creating mass civilian causalities and causing terror, and that’s really worrying,” Leibold said. “With the perception that things are spiraling out of control in Xinjiang, one question is whether Xi’s economic plans for the province will fail at the expense of fighting extremists.”

The latest attack is “anti-human, anti-society and anti-civilization, and should be condemned in one voice by Chinese and the international community,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing yesterday. “The Chinese government has the confidence and ability to strike at the arrogance of the terrorists, and their intentions will absolutely not be achieved.”

U.S. Condemnation

The U.S. government condemned the attack. “This is a despicable and outrageous act of violence against innocent civilians, and the United States resolutely opposes all forms of terrorism,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement. The European Union and Vietnam also denounced the violence, Xinhua News Agency said.

The blast was the second deadly attack within a month in Urumqi, coming three weeks after three people were killed and nearly 80 wounded in a knife attack at a train station on the last day of Xi’s inspection trip to the region. China’s Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun and a working team left for Xinjiang yesterday, according to a statement posted on the ministry’s official microblog. Guo called for an “iron-handed” approach to terrorism in Xinjiang, Xinhua said.

Violence on Rise

Violence has been on the rise since October when a sport-utility vehicle rammed into a crowd and burst into flames at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing the three occupants and two bystanders. Authorities blamed that attack on Uighur separatists. A train station assault in the southwestern city of Kunming in March left 33 people dead as the violence spread beyond Xinjiang.

The government, blaming groups seeking an independent state for an April attack in which three people died, started special anti-terrorism operations afterward. After the train station attack in Urumqi, Xi vowed decisive action to “resolutely suppress the terrorists’ rampant momentum.”

In a speech on May 21, Xinjiang party boss Zhang Chunxian highlighted new regulations for promoting cadres would increase focus on violent acts of terrorism that happen on their watch.

While about 92 percent of China’s 1.3 billion population is ethnic Han, more than 45 percent of Xinjiang’s 22 million people are Uighurs. Riots in 2009 in Urumqi killed 197 people and injured more than 1,700, according to state-run media.

Authorities have in the past accused the East Turkestan Islamic Movement of carrying out violence in Xinjiang. The movement was founded by a Uighur separatist and listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in 2002. China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said last year the group was the country’s most direct security threat.

No Solution

Simply cracking down further on Uighurs in the region won’t solve the problem for Xi, according to Joseph Cheng, professor of Political Science at the City University of Hong Kong.

The government ``is demanding quick results and that’d only be counter-productive,” he said. “The series of attacks have shown that economic growth is not enough. You need to pay genuine respect for local people’s culture and religion.”

A “gaping” wealth disparity between Han Chinese and Uighurs has spurred resentment, according to Hu from the Beijing Institute of Technology. The government ``needs to create more jobs and improve living standards for local people. But this is a long shot and needs time to see results.”

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