Reports surfaced this weekend of the worst ethnic violence experienced in China since 2009, with more than 100 people killed in attacks by individuals the government claims are Uyghur Islamist extremists in Xinjiang. Chinese state media report the government is offering rewards for those who have information on “terrorists” in the region.
The Chinese government reported numerous instances of violence in the western extreme of the country over the past week, choosing to expose the incidents in a group rather than allow media reports to surface in real time as the events unfolded. The New York Times reports that the bloodiest incident occurred in Yarkand, where the Chinese government said 59 “terrorists” were killed in an assault that also left 35 ethnic Han Chinese dead. In a separate incident, two ethnic Uyghurs were killed, as well, apparently participating in what the Times calls a “rampage by masked, knife-wielding assailants who attacked cars and passers-by.”
The incidents follow the news that the Imam of the largest mosque in China, Jume Tahir, was stabbed to death last week. The Chinese government killed two suspects in the crime and have since arrested a third.
The situation in Xinjiang has become so violent, Chinese government media claim, that the police are offering generous rewards to individuals who can help track down terrorists. Chinese state media outlet Xinhua announced that more than 300 million yuan, about $48 million, “would be offered in cash rewards to those who helped hunt suspected terrorists.” Some of that money, they noted, has already been distributed to a group that provided information leading to a crackdown of a group of ten suspected terrorists.
Uyghur minority communities abroad and others have criticized the Chinese government’s efforts in Xinjiang, however, noting that, with a total ban on independent journalism in the region, it is near impossible to know whether the reports of mass violence are truly caused by terrorist violence, or whether the Chinese government is attempting to use the surge in radical Islamist groups internationally to eliminate the mostly-Muslim Uyghur minority communities.
China banned any public celebration of the month of Ramadan, which ended with the holiday Eid last week. The Associated Press notes that journalists and Uyghur activists in the region have claimed that the violence was not a product of Uyghur terrorists, but a police crackdown in which they “killed Uighurs who had been protesting the authorities’ heavy-handed security crackdown during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.” AP notes that the government routinely interrupts internet and other communications and uses military force to keep journalists out of areas where violence is ongoing. The overbearing presence of the state makes it incredibly difficult for the few journalists who do come into contact with Uyghurs to get them to speak freely of the situation.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has used the global struggle against Islamist extremism on the geopolitical stage as well as nationally to raise the profile of the Chinese state internationally. As the jihadist group Islamic State expanded its influence across Iraq in June, the Chinese government officially announced that it would provide whatever aid necessary to prevent the Islamic State from toppling the government. Said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunyin, “For a long time, China has been giving Iraq a large amount of all sorts of aid and is willing to give whatever help it is able to.”
Xi has also used the issue to address the United States directly. In comments last July on cooperation with the United States, Xi requested that both countries “strengthen military dialogue, combat all forms of terrorism, work together in dealing with climate change and promote communication and coordination on major international and regional issues.”