Violence in China's far west has continued despite crackdown

Beijing blames the violence on separatist terrorists, but critics attribute the violence to home-grown disgruntlement over local corruption

BEIJING – Chinese authorities say in a six-month report card on their security crackdown in Xinjiang that they busted 115 terrorist gangs before they could unleash violence. But tallies of death tolls in the ethnically tense region suggest the violence has continued, and may even have intensified.

Information from the region is routinely suppressed so experts caution against any firm conclusions about the level of violence in the far western region that is home to 10 million members of the Muslim Uighur minority, who chafe under what they consider suppression by China’s ethnic majority Han. However, both Chinese state-run media and foreign outlets who monitor Xinjiang have continued to report a stream of deadly clashes.

“It’s safe to say that violence has continued roughly as it was before this latest crackdown, if not with greater intensity,” said Rian Thum, an assistant professor specializing in Uighur history at Loyola University New Orleans.

Chinese state media outlets have reported at least 175 deaths in the past six months in eight violent incidents, including a massive attack on local government facilities that left 96 dead. That compares with 46 reported killed during the same period last year.

Rian Thum’s own tally drawn from reports by the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia showed an even higher toll for the period, about 200 this year compared to roughly 50 the previous year.

Beijing blames the violence on separatist terrorists fueled by religious extremism and with ties abroad, and argues that it has invested generously to boost Xinjiang’s economy and improve its quality of life. Critics attribute the violence to home-grown disgruntlement over local corruption and an influx of Hans who have brought economic development that has not equally benefited Uighurs.

In May, Beijing announced a one-year security clampdown in Xinjiang following a series of high-profile attacks on civilians blamed on Uighurs, both in Xinjiang and elsewhere. That came on top of heightened security measures in place since deadly riots broke out in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi in 2009.

A six-month report card on the campaign published on the Xinjiang government’s official news site this week focused on prosecution data. It said authorities detained 334 suspects and prosecuted 294 cases of sharing online terrorism-promoting audios and video, and seized 18,000 copies of illegal religious books.

The report indicates that security remains a “big problem” in Xinjiang, said Raffaello Pantucci, a London-based terrorism researcher at the defence think-tank Royal United Services Institute.

The report also cites as a major success the life imprisonment of a prominent Uighur scholar known for his open criticisms of China’s Xinjiang policies, although the September conviction of Ilham Tohti on the separatism charge has drawn international condemnation.

In the past 6 months, Xinjiang also has expedited the prosecution of terrorist suspects. Two and half months after assailants attacked a township government office and police station in Kashgar, the local court sentenced 12 people to death and another 15 people with suspended death.

Some Uighur advocates have warned the heavy-handed response could exacerbate tensions, but observers say the situation in the region is complex and the crackdown cannot alone be blamed for its unrest.

“The situation is tense, but there have not been substantial further attacks outside Xinjiang in recent months so I’m not sure that things have become any worse,” said Philip Potter, assistant professor of politics at the University of Virginia.

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