Beijing Increases Security in East Turkistan
BEIJING — The Chinese authorities tightened their grip on Tuesday on the far western region of Xinjiang, where two clashes left dozens dead last week, by confiscating knives and offering rewards for information about possible separatist attacks, according to the state news media. The police also issued arrest warrants for 11 people said to be wanted for murder, bombings and other acts of violence.
27 Die in Rioting in Western China (June 27, 2013)
The security drive, described by one senior official as a “people’s war,” has been accompanied by accusations in official media that shadowy extremist groups have orchestrated unrest among Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group. One state-run newspaper sought to link an increase in violence in Xinjiang to Uighurs who were said to have trained in war-ravaged Syria.
On Monday, the newspaper — The Global Times, a populist tabloid owned by The People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party — claimed that about 100 Uighurs had gone to Syria to join rebel forces there who are fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The newspaper quoted an unidentified Chinese security official as saying that the Uighurs went to Syria to “improve their fighting skills and gain experience in carrying out terror attacks.” Uighur exile groups and experts on the region have rejected government claims that the unrest in Xinjiang was the work of foreign-trained militants.
The intense security comes days before the fourth anniversary of ethnic rioting in the regional capital, Urumqi, that killed nearly 200 people. The attacks last week included anassault Wednesday on a local police station and government offices in Turpan Prefecture that left 35 dead, including 11 rioters shot by the police. Two days later, the state media reported a violent confrontation in Hotan Prefecture; details remain murky.
In a speech published Tuesday, the Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, said officials must “fully grasp that violent terrorist activities have become a real and major threat to stability in Xinjiang,” according to Tianshan Net, the official Internet news site for Xinjiang.
State media have reported that in the recent bloodshed, rioters were armed with primitive weapons, mostly knives, and many foreign experts have said much of the ethnic violence in Xinjiang is spontaneous discontent that does not show the hallmarks of international planning and support.
But The Global Times suggested that Xinjiang was also under broader threat from skilled separatist fighters hardened by combat in Syria. The report said a Uighur man who had fought in Syria returned to Xinjiang, where he was captured. On Tuesday, the paper quoted Syria’s ambassador to Beijing as saying that at least 30 Uighur militants had traveled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands and then to Turkey for the purpose of fighting in Syria.
The accusations have exposed a murky international dimension to Beijing’s claims that bloodshed in Xinjiang has been orchestrated by Uighur militants seeking an independent homeland, which they call East Turkistan.
But it is unclear whether the Chinese government endorses the allegations of a link to Syria. No other Chinese news outlet has independently confirmed the allegations in The Global Times, and a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, did not directly respond to the report. Still, when asked Tuesday whether China believed that separatist organizations were behind the violence, Ms. Hua said, “Please don’t harbor any doubt about the nature of the recent violent terrorist acts in Xinjiang.”
The East Turkistan Education and Solidarity Association, a Uighur exile group based in Turkey, denied The Global Times’s accusations that it had helped Uighurs travel to Syria. In a telephone interview from Istanbul, Abdulehed Er, the association’s vice president, said the report was part of a Chinese government effort to smear opponents as terrorists.
Rohan Gunaratna, a professor at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said some Uighurs appeared to have gone to Syria to fight with opposition groups, but not in the numbers cited by The Global Times. He estimated that a dozen had tried to enter Syria but was unsure how many had succeeded.
Andrew Jacobs reported from Beijing, and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong. Patrick Zuo contributed research from Beijing.