TIME Viewpoint

China’s Silent War on Terror

Chinese soldiers patrolling in old Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, July 30, 2014.
Chinese soldiers patrol in Kashgar, in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, on July 30, 2014 Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

A virtual media blackout makes it hard to know what's happening as China tackles unrest among its Uighur Muslim minorities

On a clear, sunny morning last October, an SUV carrying three people turned right on to Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue, plowed through crowds gathered near the entrance to the Forbidden City and burst into flames at the northern edge of Tiananmen Square. The wreck killed five people, including three in the vehicle and two bystanders. Dozens more were injured.

Almost immediately, eyewitnesses started posting pictures. The photographs showed scenes of chaos in the heart of China’s capital: a plume of smoke rising in front of a portrait of Chairman Mao; the charred carapace of the vehicle resting at the foot of the ancient Gate of Heavenly Peace. Almost as quickly as the images were posted, however, they started to disappear. It became clear that the Chinese government, and the government alone, would tell this story.

Nearly a year later, they are still pulling the strings. On Aug. 24, state-backed media announced that three masterminds behind the incident were executed, alongside five other convicted terrorists. The report listed their names and charges, but did not mention when or how they were put to death, where they were held, in what conditions, or whether they were offered legal counsel. (State broadcaster CCTV did note, however, that Usmen Hasan, the driver of the SUV, once beat a middle-school teacher and was “feared” by his wife.)

Though some elements of the official account may well be true, the reporting is clearly selective — and impossible to confirm. Hasan, his wife and his mother were killed in the crash, and the others were held out of public view. Maya Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, says rights groups and foreign journalists have effectively been blocked from looking into the matter. “We are just as much in the dark about these individuals,” she says. “We have almost no independent information, except what the state press has released.”

The handling of the case is part of an effort to manage when, and how, China talks about terrorism. This past year has seen a wave of attacks, starting with the Tiananmen crash and moving, in bloody succession, to ambushes at train stations in Kunming and Urumqi in March and April, respectively. In late May, Urumqi was hit again, when attackers targeted a morning market, leaving dozens dead. Each was pinned, directly or indirectly, on “separatists” or “extremists” from Xinjiang. If and when details are released by state media, they tend to point toward a straightforward story of radicalization at the hands of overseas Islamic terrorist groups. And those reports are always followed by news of the government’s swift and effective response.

The reality is more complex. Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which borders Russia, Pakistan and several Central Asian nations, is claimed as the traditional homeland of the Turkic Uighur people — and as part of China. Since coming to power in 1949, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has sent waves of military personnel and migrants west to settle the area they call New Frontier. Many Uighurs resent the influx of ethnic Han Chinese and worry they are getting cut out of the region’s resource-driven economic boom.

A small minority of the Uighur population, meanwhile, has waged a decades-long fight against the central government, often targeting symbols of state power including police stations and government buildings. There have also been direct attacks on civilians. The ruling party has responded by beefing up security and trying to forcibly integrate the mostly Muslim Uighur population. In recent months, entire cities have been sealed off by police checkpoints. Some areas are trying to discourage, or outright ban, certain types of beards and veils.

This has not stopped the bloodshed. In July, violence broke out in Xinjiang’s Shache county (called Yarkand in the Uighur language). State media waited more than 24 hours before announcing the unrest. As soon as they did, conflicting accounts emerged, with the government saying the violence broke out after police foiled a terrorist plot, and exile Uighur groups saying police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against restrictions during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and against the alleged extrajudicial killing of a Uighur family. The state says 96 people were killed; Uighur groups claim the figure is much higher.

We might never know what happened there. The authorities moved quickly to restrict access to the area and pulled comments from the almost-always-out-of-service web. (In times of unrest, authorities slow, or stop, Internet traffic in Xinjiang; after the 2009 riots the entire region was without Internet for nine months.) Given China’s weak record on the rule of law — and the sensitivity of the case — it’s highly unlikely that there will be an impartial investigation, let alone a fair trial. People on the ground in Xinjiang are rightly frightened that they will be punished if they comment. According to Radio Free Asia, a nonprofit media group, one blogger was already arrested for “spreading rumors” about the number of deaths.

Perhaps in 10 months we will finally hear more about the people involved in the incident. Like those killed in Beijing, Kunming, and Urumqi, the people who died in Yarkand deserve justice. The question is, what kind of justice will it be?

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

TIME China

If China Is Anti-Islam, Why Are These Chinese Muslims Enjoying a Faith Revival?

China's Hui Muslim Minority Attend First Friday Prayers Of Ramadan
Hui imams pray before the main Friday prayers during the holy fasting month of Ramadan at the historic Niujie Mosque in Beijing on July 4, 2014 Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

Beijing bans some Muslims from observing Ramadan, or boarding public transport while veiled, but it allows millions of others to practice their religion without hindrance

The road to Linxia, in China’s vast, sere northwest, is known locally as the Quran Belt, with a profusion of newly built mosques and Sufi shrines lining the motorway. Some are built in a traditional Chinese style, with pagoda-like eaves; others, with their green tiled domes, echo Middle Eastern architecture.

With violent unrest affecting northwestern Xinjiang, a spotlight has been cast on that area’s Muslim Uighurs, who have long chafed at rule from Beijing. But the Uighurs, some of whom yearn for autonomy from the People’s Republic, are not the biggest Muslim population in China, which has more adherents to Islam than the European Union. That distinction belongs to the Hui, a 10.5 million-strong group that is also the second largest of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities. One of the Hui centers of Islamic learning is the Wild West town of Linxia, in Gansu province, where Sufi traditions remain vibrant.

With the bloodshed in Xinjiang escalating — the most recent clash late last month, which the Chinese government labeled a “violent terrorist attack,” saw nearly 100 people killed, according to an official count — authorities have intensified a crackdown on spiritual expression by Uighurs. (Tibetans face religious repression too as their disenchantment with Chinese rule grows.) But this does not mean that Beijing is curtailing Islam nationwide. Indeed, members of the Muslim Hui community are enjoying a flowering of faith in what is, officially, still an atheist communist nation.

Linxia’s Islamic places of worship are just one symbol of this religious boom. Ismail, a Hui who works for a state-owned enterprise in the Ningxia autonomous region, says he openly practices his faith. “Of course, I fast during Ramadan,” he says. “All my Hui friends do it, too. It’s our obligation as Muslims.” But a Uighur college student says he and his classmates were not allowed to do the same. “[Han university authorities] make sure we eat at the cafeteria. They say they don’t want us to be tired, but I don’t believe them. It is because we are Uighur.”

Hui participation in the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca has increased over the past several years, say scholars. Another sign of renewed religious commitment: Ismail says he has noticed more Hui women in his hometown wearing veils in recent years. “As more Hui women receive education, they learn more about their own identities,” he says. “As a result, they realize the protection brought by Islam and are starting to wear veils more.”

By contrast, a local paper in the Xinjiang town of Karamay reported last week that residents with long beards, headscarves, veils and clothing with an Islamic crescent moon and star would not be allowed to board public buses while the city played host to a sporting event. In Kashgar, a Silk Road outpost that is a repository of Uighur culture, the local government has promoted a campaign called Project Beauty that urges Uighur women to “show your pretty faces and let your beautiful hair fly in the wind.” Uighurs also have a hard time getting passports to travel abroad, especially to go on the hajj.

“It’s not an issue of freedom of religion,” says Dru Gladney, one of the foremost academics studying Chinese Muslims. “Clearly, there are many avenues of religious expression that are unfettered in China, but when you cross these very often nebulous and shifting boundaries of what the state regards as political, then you’re in dangerous territory. Obviously this is what we see in Xinjiang and in Tibet.”

Unlike Tibetans or Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language and are racially distinct from the Han, the Hui are not agitating for increased autonomy, much less a split from China. One reason may be influenced by geography. While Uighurs are concentrated in Xinjiang, and Tibetans clustered on the high plateau in far western China, the Hui are spread out across the nation. True, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is dedicated to them, but Hui communities exist in practically every major Chinese city. A significant population lives in Beijing.

Racially and linguistically, the Hui — whose ancestors include Persian, Central Asian and Arab traders who plied the Silk Road and intermarried with local Chinese — are virtually indistinguishable from China’s Han majority. Often, it is only the presence of a white prayer cap that differentiates a Hui man from his Han counterpart. Partly because of their cultural affinity to the Han and their geographic dispersal, the Hui are far more integrated into mainstream Chinese life than those ethnic minorities living in China’s borderlands.

“The way [the government treats] the Uighurs and the Hui is completely different,” says a foreign scholar who studies the Hui, requesting anonymity. “The standard line for the Uighurs is that everything is oppression and violence and conflict, and the standard narrative for the Hui is that they are complicit with state power and that they are not real Muslims. The Hui are considered the good Muslims and the Uighurs the bad Muslims.”

That division has implications for the future of Xinjiang, which was once predominantly Uighur but has played host to waves of government-encouraged internal migration. While many of the recent arrivals who work at military or state-owned farms and mines are Han, other newcomers are Hui. China’s 2010 national census recorded 983,015 Hui in Xinjiang, up from 681,527 in the 1990 count. During the 2009 rioting in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi that killed around 200 people, one reported refrain from extremist Uighurs spread across social media: “Kill the Han, kill the Hui.”

The Hui’s forebears include a long line of military generals loyal to imperial Chinese governments. (There were, however, Hui rebels who battled the late Qing dynasty from a base in Ningxia.) The Hui also excelled at trading, a talent which spread their numbers across China. Even in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, many trinket stores and restaurants near the main city square are now owned by Hui merchants. The Hui, along with the Han, were targeted when ethnic violence broke out in Tibetan regions in 2008. Indeed, ancient history in China’s far west is filled with battles between Tibetans, Uighurs, the Hui and the Han, with borders and allegiances shifting like desert sands. Animosities endure. “Post-2008 [violence in Tibet] and 2009 [bloodshed in Xinjiang], it’s like it’s every group for themselves,” says the foreign Hui scholar.

External influences are also becoming more important in Chinese Islam. The proliferation of Middle Eastern–style mosques in Linxia mirrors the rise of purist Salafi Islam across the world, from Indonesia to North Africa, in which a unified faith trumps indigenous variations. “In China, the Hui have extraordinarily illustrated this beautiful accommodation between Chinese culture and Islam,” says Gladney, who teaches at Pomona College in California. “But with the rise of social media and an idea of one Islamic world, this historic accommodation is being debated.”

Gladney notes that Hui clerics have studied at Egypt’s al-Azhar University, one of the world’s most important centers of Islamic learning, while around 300 Hui live in the holy Saudi Arabian city of Medina. “For 1,300 years, the Hui have been able to not only survive but thrive,” says Gladney. “But we have to also remember that revolutions in Chinese Islam have tended to come from increased communication and travel abroad, and we’re in a period where the Hui with the right connections are doing just that.”

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

TIME China

In the Shadow of Beijing’s Rule: Uighur Life in the Ancient City of Kashgar

Getty photographer Kevin Frayer documents a people fighting to maintain their cultural and religious independence

On the morning of July 30, in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, an imam named Juma Tahir led prayers to mark Eid al-Fitr. Soon after, the 74-year-old was found stabbed to death outside his 600-year-old mosque. His murder capped days of violence in China’s vast and troubled northwest — and, many fear, augured conflict to come.

The territory that is today called Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is, and has long been, contested space. The oasis towns that circle the Taklamakan Desert are claimed as both the homeland of the mostly Muslim, Turkic Uighur people, and, off and on for centuries, as Chinese land. With the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the ruling Communist Party sent forth waves of military personnel to settle the area. They have since been joined by migrants from the Chinese heartland, most but not all of whom, are from the ethnic Han majority; in 1949, Han people accounted for only about 6% of Xinjiang’s population; today, the figure is more than 40%.

The influx has left Xinjiang at odds. Beijing says integration with the rest of China is revitalizing the region, bringing money and jobs to the long-neglected west. Uighurs counter that they have yet to reap the benefits of the economic boom, and worry that their language, religion, and culture are threatened. Many want greater independence for the land they call East Turkestan. A small minority has fought for it, waging a decades-long insurgency that has mostly targeted local symbols of state power, including police stations, transportation hubs and government offices.

This year, the unrest moved east. In October 2013, an SUV driven by three members of a Uighur family plowed through crowds of holidaymakers in the heart of Beijing, killing five, including the occupants, at the northern end of Tiananmen Square. In March, a group of black-clad attackers stabbed and slashed their way through a train-station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, killing 29. State media blamed the bloody ambush and two subsequent attacks in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, on religious extremists.

The surge in violence prompted the government to tighten its grip on Xinjiang. Its town squares are now patrolled by police officers carrying automatic weapons. Across the Uighur heartland, villages are sealed by police checkpoints. Mistaking cultural practice for evidence of extremist thought, local governments are monitoring people’s habits and dress: there have been campaigns to stop students and civil students from fasting during the Muslim holy month; age restrictions on mosque visits; and, most recently, in Karamay, an ill-conceived move to ban women wearing veils and men sporting beards, from the city’s public buses.

Kashgar, where Getty photographer Kevin Frayer made these pictures, is at the heart of all this. Sitting at the westernmost fringe of the People’s Republic, closer to Baghdad than Beijing, it has for centuries been a meeting point and trading hub, the place that connected Constantinople (now Istanbul) to Xi’an, before playing host to Britain and Russia’s spies during the 19th centuries “Great Game.” A good portion of the alleys and warrens they wrote home about have since been bulldozed; China will flatten 85% of the old city — an unpopular project that is well under way.

It was outside the city, in Kashgar prefecture, Shache county, that the most recent spate of bloodshed took root. What happened there on July 27 is still disputed and, because outside journalists are effectively barred from the area, facts are scarce. Chinese state media initially said “dozens” were killed. Later, they revised the official account, reporting that 96 people, including 37 civilians and 59 terrorists, died in a rampage masterminded by extremists. Their account is at odds with reporting by Radio Free Asia, a nonprofit news service, that linked the incident to state-led violence and suppression during Ramadan.

Days later, outside China’s largest mosque, imam Tahir was killed. China’s state newswire, Xinhua, reported his alleged assassins were “influenced by religious extremism” and plotted to “do something big” to increase their influence. Other nonstate outlets were quick to note, though, that Tahir was not just any imam, but a state-sanctioned one. He held a position in the government-run China Islamic Association and was often quoted backing the party line. Was that was got him killed?

That, like much else, remains unclear. But from wherever you stand, the murder feels like a grisly message: The lines are drawn; pick a side.

TIME China

China Now Says Almost 100 Were Killed in Xinjiang Violence

China Steps Up Security Following Xinjiang Unrest
Chinese soldiers march in front of the Id Kah Mosque, China's largest, in Kashgar, on July 31, 2014. China has increased security in many parts of restive Xinjiang following some of the worst violence in months Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

Tensions in China's northwestern frontier region are escalating rapidly

It took a week, but authorities have finally released a death toll for the violence that rocked China’s far northwestern frontier on July 28. Early reports said “dozens” were killed or injured; now the government says nearly 100 were killed, and 215 arrested, making it the deadliest single incident since riots hit Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’s capital, Urumqi, in 2009. But even as more details are released, questions remain about what, exactly, happened in Shache County (also known as Yarkand in the Uighur language). And with the area shut to foreign journalists, and Internet access spotty across the region, those questions will be difficult to answer.

As TIME reported last week, there are at least two competing accounts of what happened in Shache — and neither feels complete. Some 24 hours after the unrest, China’s official newswire Xinhua issued a breaking-news alert stating that dozens had been killed or injured in a premeditated terrorist attack on a police station in Xinjiang. After local officials discovered a cache of explosives, state media said, knife-wielding mobs went on a rampage, killing civilians and torching several vehicles. One report speculated that the attack was timed to coincide with a commodity fair.

The official narrative has changed in the interim. The latest details released by Chinese authorities suggest the incident was both more severe, and less isolated, than it initially seemed. State media now put the death toll at 96, including 37 civilians, and 59 people identified as terrorists. The violence “was preceded by a large-scale police crackdown in Hotan,” reported the Global Times, and was “followed” by the murder, in Kashgar, of an imam with ties to the government. Chinese news outlets say the unrest was coordinated by extremists with links to a group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and that banners calling for jihad were found at the scene.

Other groups paint a strikingly different picture. An early report by Uighur-speaking Radio Free Asia reporters Shohret Hoshur and Eset Sulaiman said the uprising was linked to restrictions during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the alleged extrajudicial killing of a Uighur family. In their account — which here bears some similarity to the government’s narrative — knife- and ax-wielding Uighurs went on a rampage and were subsequently gunned down by Chinese police. A representative from the World Uyghur Congress, an overseas exile group, presented a slightly different story, saying the armed Uighurs were in fact protesters speaking out against the Ramadan restrictions, not rioters per se.

The divergent accounts say much about the divisions affecting Xinjiang, and the difficulty of reporting on the area. The vast area known as Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is the homeland of the mostly Muslim, Turkic Uighur people, but is claimed also as Chinese territory. Since coming to power, the Chinese Communist Party has sent waves of migrants to Xinjiang in an attempt to settle its far west; in 1949, China’s ethnic Han majority accounted for only about 6% of the population; today, the figure is more than 40%. The government says it is bringing prosperity to the region, but many ethnic Uighurs say they have been cut off from the economic benefits and resent restrictions on freedom of movement and their right to practice their faith. A small minority has waged a decades-long struggle against Chinese authorities, often targeting police stations or transport hubs.

Over the past year, the conflict has intensified considerably. In October 2013, an SUV carrying three ethnic Uighurs plowed through tourists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing five, including the occupants. In March 2014, a group of black-clad, knife-wielding attackers slashed its way through a busy train station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, killing 29. Chinese authorities blamed that incident, and two subsequent ambushes in the regional capital, Urumqi, on terrorist groups with overseas ties. Little information has been released about the perpetrators or their victims. And with much of Xinjiang closed to foreign reporters, the government’s account is difficult to independently confirm.

The central government has responded by tightening already stringent security measures and stepping up efforts to integrate Uighurs — by force, if necessary. There are police trucks and officers in riot gear in town squares across the region, and many towns, particularly in Uighur-dominated southwest Xinjiang, are now sealed off by police checkpoints. The physical lockdown has come with curbs on religious practice, including attempts to ban civil servants from fasting during Ramadan and, reportedly, efforts to stop Uighur women from covering their hair.

The authorities are calling the latest crackdown a “people’s war” on terrorism, urging — and in many cases, paying — people to come forward with information about suspicious activity. The government recently announced it would offer 300 million yuan ($48.6 million), in cash for “hunting terrorists.” At a recent ceremony in the city of Hotan, 10,000 local officials and civilians were given some 4.23 million yuan ($685,000) for their trouble. Critics worry, however, that the scheme will only deepen distrust between Uighurs and the Han-dominated central government, turning neighbors against each other and potentially criminalizing certain religious practices that have nothing to do with organized terrorism.

Meanwhile, amid calls for calm, the government’s rhetoric is heating up. In the wake of the latest attack, Xinjiang party secretary Zhang Chunxian, promised an even tougher crackdown to come. “We have to hit hard, hit accurately and hit with awe-inspiring force,” he said. “To fight such evils we must aim at extermination. To cut weeds we must dig out the roots.”

The statement was no doubt designed to reassure people that the government has the situation under control. Somehow, though, the nihilistic imagery feels more like a warning of more conflict, and violence, to come.

TIME China

China Charges Uighur Scholar Ilham Tohti With ‘Separatism’

Ilham Tohti
Ilham Tohti, an outspoken scholar of China's Uighur ethnic minority, speaks during an interview at his home in Beijing on Feb. 4, 2013 Andy Wong—AP

The Beijing-based professor of economics is a moderate but determined critic of China's treatment of ethnic minorities

Prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti was charged by Chinese authorities with “separatism” on Wednesday. The long-expected announcement came amid a period of violent unrest in China’s far-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

The Beijing-based professor of economics is a moderate but determined critic of China’s treatment of ethnic minority groups. He has been held since January, but was not allowed to see his lawyer until June. His lawyer, Li Fangping, only heard about the charges when the local government posted the news online, the Guardian reports.

Charges against Tohti come at a particularly sensitive time. This week alone, dozens were killed or injured in violence outside the ancient city of Kashgar. Beijing blamed the unrest on Uighur extremists, but human-rights groups claim Chinese authorities exaggerate terrorist ties in order to justify their own use of force. On Wednesday, an imam in the city of Kashgar, who was frequently quoted by state media as praising the Communist Party and denouncing terrorism, was reportedly stabbed to death.

Chinese authorities allege that Tohti used a website to, among other things, “spread separatist thinking,” and accuse him of urging his students to engage in violent struggle — charges at odds with his extensive body of writing and work. Rights groups say the charges amount to a political witch hunt, and show Beijing’s unwillingness to tolerate even the most moderate and measured criticism.

PEN American Center, which awarded Tohti the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award earlier this year, condemned the indictment in a statement, saying that he “has worked within the country’s laws to promote equal rights for all of China’s citizens, and to encourage exchange and understanding between different ethnic groups.”

The charge against Tohti will almost certainly lead to conviction and, potentially, the death penalty.

TIME

China: Dozens Dead or Injured in Xinjiang ‘Terror,’ but Facts Are Few and Far Between

A Uighur man looks on as a truck carrying paramilitary policemen travel along a street during an anti-terrorism oath-taking rally in Urumqi
A Uighur man looks on as a truck carrying paramilitary policemen travel along a street during an antiterrorism oath-taking rally in Urumqi, China's Xinjiang region, on May 23, 2014 Stringer China—Reuters

Two vastly different accounts have emerged about the incident, which occurred on the first day of the ‘Id al-Fitr festival

Some time on Monday, in a small town near China’s northwest frontier, dozens of people were injured or lost their lives. Two days later, we do not know who died, how they were killed or what sparked the violence. And with the area effectively sealed off by Chinese security forces, and the Internet up and down across the area, it is possible we never really will.

Two vastly different accounts have emerged about the incident, which occurred on the first day of the ‘Id al-Fitr festival, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Chinese state media reported that dozens of civilians were killed or injured in a premeditated terrorist attack in Shache county (or Yarkand in the Uighur language). The news, which was not released until more than 24 hours after the incident, was cast as evidence of organized terrorism by ethnic Uighur extremists. Their account suggests that knife-wielding mobs went on a rampage after officials discovered some explosives and foiled a terrorist plot that may or may not have been timed to coincide with a commodity fair.

An account by the nonprofit Radio Free Asia (RFA) paints an altogether different picture. Reporters for the outlet’s Uighur-language news service say dozens of “knife- and ax-wielding” ethnic Uighurs were shot by police in a riot sparked by restrictions during Ramadan. “There has been a lot of pent-up frustration over house-to-house searches and checking on headscarves [worn by Uighur women] during this Ramadan,” Alim Adurshit, a local official, told RFA. The report also mentioned the extrajudicial killing of a Uighur family — an incident that has not been reported by Chinese state press and that TIME has not independently confirmed.

The dueling narratives point to the challenge of figuring out what, exactly, is happening in China’s vast and restless northwest. The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where the incident took place, is contested space. It is both claimed as the homeland of the mostly Muslim, Turkic Uighur people, and also as Chinese territory. In recent years, the area has seethed with unrest attributed, depending on whom you ask, to Islamic terrorism, separatism or heavy-handed repression by the state. For years now, a small minority has fought against the government, usually by targeting symbols of state power, including police stations and transport hubs.

The past year has been particularly bloody. In October, an SUV plowed through crowds of tourists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing five — including three inside the vehicle — and injuring dozens. Chinese authorities said the vehicle was driven by ethnic Uighurs, but revealed little else. In March, a group of knife-wielding attackers slashed and stabbed their way through a train station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, killing 29. The government blamed that incident, and two subsequent attacks in the regional capital, Urumqi, on separatists from Xinjiang.

Beijing has responded by doubling down on already aggressive security measures and their campaign of forced cultural integration. Across the region, town squares are now patrolled by armed security personnel in riot gear, and villages are sealed off by police checkpoints. Ethnic Uighurs are stopped and searched. Meanwhile, the government has stepped up limits on religious practice by, for instance, putting age restrictions on mosque visits and banning students and government workers from fasting during Ramadan.

In the context of this division and distrust, it makes sense that there are competing claims. The trouble is, China prevents outsiders from gathering information on their own. The foreign press corps is, by virtue of China’s rules, based far from Xinjiang, primarily in the Han-majority cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Travel to Xinjiang, while not officially forbidden, is effectively restricted. When I visited Urumqi and Hotan in late May, security personnel harassed my Chinese colleague, questioned me, followed our movements and stopped us from traveling to the city of Kashgar.

The ruling Communist Party’s powers of information control are also a factor. On a good day, China’s Great Firewall makes it difficult for citizens to share information that censors might consider politically sensitive; other days, it is impossible. Following the violent suppression of the 2009 riots in Urumqi, the government effectively turned off the region’s Internet for nine months. There are reports the web is off and on again now, which may help explain why so little has emerged in terms of firsthand accounts or photographic evidence.

Overseas-based Uighur groups say until there is transparency, the public should not trust the state’s account. “China does not want the world to know what occurred on Monday,” said Alim Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association, in a statement. “As little is known of the circumstances of their killing, due to tight restrictions on information, UAA seeks an open investigation into the incident and the loss of dozens of lives.”

With every instance of violence, that looks less likely to happen.

TIME China

China Jails 32 People for Online Terror Charges

A man plays a computer game at an internet cafe in Beijing
A man plays a computer game at an internet cafe in Beijing May 9, 2014. Courts in Xinjiang on Friday sentenced 32 persons to prison for downloading and spreading violent Internet content. Kim Kyung Hoon—Reuters

The sentencing is part of efforts to scour and scrub the Internet for material promoting religious warfare or teaching bomb-making methods that Chinese authorities say have fueled recent attacks.

(BEIJING) — Courts in a restive region of western China sentenced 32 people to prison, three of them for life, for downloading and spreading violent Internet content that authorities have blamed for inspiring a recent string of deadly attacks, state media said Friday.

The other 29 people were handed sentences ranging from four to 15 years’ imprisonment by seven courts in the region on Thursday, according to state broadcaster CCTV and the region’s official newspaper, the Xinjiang Daily.

The sentencing is part of efforts to scour and scrub the Internet for material promoting religious warfare or teaching bomb-making methods that Chinese authorities say have fueled recent attacks.

Escalating unrest in the Xinjiang region, home to China’s Turkic Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) ethnic minority who want more autonomy from Beijing, has posed a serious challenge to the administration of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping in his first 20 months in power. In May, a market bombing killed 43 people in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

The attacks, which have killed dozens of people this year, prompted Beijing to launch an expansive security crackdown in the region, arresting several hundred people and sentencing scores to prison and in some cases to death.

Chinese state media have said that virtually all those taking part in recent attacks have been exposed to extremist content online. It said Xinjiang separatists have recently flooded the Web with such material, raising the challenge to authorities and the risk of further attacks.

TIME China

China Bans Ramadan Fasting for Officials, Students in Restive Northwest

Ethnic Uighur men walk outside a mosque in Kashgar
Ethnic Uighur men walk outside a mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang province, on Aug. 3, 2011. Carlos Barria—Reuters

Xinjiang's ethnic Uighur Muslims have been subject to an "anti-terrorism" crackdown after a spate of deadly attacks

Several government departments in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region have banned students and civil servants from fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Statements posted on school and government websites said the sure-to-be-unpopular policy was aimed at protecting students and stopping government offices from being used to promote religion, reports the Associated Press.

This is not the first instance of Chinese officials trying to curtail religious freedom among Xinjiang’s ethnic Uighur Muslims, but it comes at a particularly delicate time. A series of brutal attacks by what China says are religious extremists has spurred a year-long anti-terrorism crackdown in Xinjiang, including mass arrests and trials, cash awards for information and random searches.

Critics counter that the chief concern is not links to global terrorism, but widespread dissatisfaction with Chinese rule. A Muslim people that take their cultural and linguistic cues from Central Asia, Xinjiang’s Uighurs say they have been overwhelmed by an influx of migrants from the Han heartland to the east. They also complain of discrimination in the job market, limits on free expression and restriction on their right to pray, dress — and now, fast — as they so choose.

[AP]

TIME Asia

China Arrests 380 in First Month of Yearlong Antiterrorism Campaign

China Terrorism Crackdown
Armed paramilitary policemen ride on a truck during an antiterrorism oath-taking rally at the Grand Bazaar in Urumqi, China, on May 23, 2014 AP

In general, the names of those arrested are not released, and they are likely to face trial in secret

China has arrested at least 380 people in its first month of a yearlong campaign against terrorism, state-run media said on Monday.

The crackdown was triggered by a suicide attack blamed on Islamic militants that left 39 people dead in the restive western province of Xinjiang in May.

The Ministry of Public Security said in a statement that the campaign to avert the spread of religious radicalism would last until June 2015, “With Xinjiang as the center, and with cooperation from other provinces.”

China Central Television (CCTV) stated that the campaign began with the disbanding of 32 terrorist groups in the western province, confirming Beijing’s promise that “terrorists and extremists will be hunted down and punished,” AFP reported.

Along with arrests that concentrated on suspected militants in Xinjiang but spread throughout the country, police also seized 264 devices that could discharge 3.15 tons of explosives, CCTV reported.

Most of the violence in Xinjiang apparently stems from rising tensions between the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority and majority Han Chinese migrants. Human-rights groups also blame increasing economic disparity and religious discrimination against the Uighurs, although Beijing claims that the government has helped improve the local economy and infrastructure.

[AFP]

TIME

The Capital of China’s Xinjiang Region Is in Lockdown After a Deadly Blast

Chinese police say an explosion has killed at least 31 people in Urumqi, the capital of China's restive northwest Xinjiang region. This comes just weeks after a bomb and knife attack at the city's rail station was blamed on extremists from the region's mostly Muslim Uighur community

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Urumqi does not want for cops. The capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in China’s far northwest, is well-guarded. Riot trucks cruise city streets. Armed police stand vigil over Friday prayers. And following a deadly attack last month, the city’s railway station feels like a fortress. But none of this, it seems, has stopped the violence.

At around 7:50 a.m. Thursday two “cross-country” vehicles collided on a street near Renmin Park, about 4km from the city’s main square, sending fire and smoke shooting into the sky, according to state media reports. Witnesses told local press they heard a series of explosions and saw blazing plumes stretching one-story high. Photographs from the scene show shattered market stalls, toppled piles of produce, and bodies lining the road. Police say at least 31 people were killed.

The explosion hit the city at what is usually a quiet, restful time. China officially has one time zone, a fact that is at odds with longitudinal realities. To account for this, people in Xinjiang use both “Beijing time” and “Xinjiang time,” which is two hours behind. Ten to eight in the morning, Beijing time, is effectively 5:50 a.m. to the locals. At this hour, it’s usually only shopkeepers and the elderly who are milling about.

The early-morning chaos comes just weeks after a brutal and bloody attack at an Urumqi railway station. On April 30, a bomb and knife attack at the city’s southern train terminal left three dead — two of them attackers — and 79 injured. Several people have since been arrested in connection with that attack. Although few details have been released, authorities say they were motivated by extremism.

It will probably be days or weeks before we know what exactly happened. The authorities keep a tight lid on information about potentially sensitive subjects, and few subjects are more sensitive right now than the specter of unrest, or terrorism, in Xinjiang.

The vast homeland of the Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim Uighur people has seen a rise in violence in recent years attributed, depending on who you ask, to religious extremism, separatism, or as a reaction to forceful religious and social oppression by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Many Uighurs feel overwhelmed by the pace of immigration to Xinjiang of China’s ethnic Han majority, with Urumqi now a majority Han city.

For decades, a small minority has waged a campaign against the Chinese government, usually targeting symbols of state power in Xinjiang, including government buildings and police stations.

The violence seems to be spreading. Last fall, a truck plowed through crowds of tourists in Beijing’s Tiananmen square, killing two and injuring dozens. Chinese authorities said the vehicle was driven by Uighur separatists, although few details have been released about the assailants — a man, his wife and his mother. In March, a group of knife-wielding attackers slashed and stabbed their way through a train station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, killing 29. Chinese authorities identified the group as separatists from Xinjiang.

All this has prompted the ruling Chinese Communist Party to tighten its already firm hold on the territory. In a visit to Xinjiang last month, President Xi Jinping promised a “strike first” policy and called police officers, who are disproportionately Han Chinese, the “fists and daggers” in the country’s fight against terrorism and separatism. “Sweat more in peacetime to bleed less in wartime,” he reportedly advised.

By last weekend, the police were omnipresent. In Hotan, a dusty city in Xinjiang’s southwest, there were police trucks on each block of the city’s center. Roads to outlying towns and villages were blocked by checkpoints. In the otherwise laid-back and leafy capital, life continues apace, albeit in the presence of armed men. At Urumqi’s southern railway station — which is itself flanked by police stations — men with automatic weapons meet passengers at the ticket gate.

The show of force is mighty, but on this awful morning, you have to wonder if anyone feels safe.

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