On Thursday morning, at least 31 people were killed and 94 injured (31 dead as blast rocks capital of China's Xinjiang region) when two vans laden with explosives ploughed through a crowded morning market in Urumqi, the provincial capital of China’s far-western Xinjiang region. The incident was only the latest of a series of increasingly frequent attacks in Xinjiang, a sprawling desert region bordering Tibet, Central Asia and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) that is home to the Uighurs, an ethnic Turkic Muslim minority group.
Who was behind the attack?
While investigations are on-going, Chinese officials have blamed recent similar attacks on extremist groups active in Xinjiang, such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which is campaigning for independence. Chinese authorities said the ETIM was behind an April 30 attack on Urumqi railway station, where assailants armed with knives and explosives killed at least three people and left dozens injured (Separatist group behind Xinjiang station attack: China).
Was this the biggest ever terror attack on Chinese soil?
At least 31 people were killed in Thursday’s attack, appearing to be the most casualties in a single terror attack in Xinjiang in the recent past. In September 2011, at least 40 people were killed in two separate attacks on the cities of Kashgar and Hotan, in southwestern Xinjiang (Jihadist group claims Xinjiang attacks). Those attacks were also claimed by the ETIM, which is also referred to sometimes as the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). The attacks have appeared to grow in scale and ambition: earlier incidents saw fewer casualties, usually involving untrained attackers, armed with knives or crude explosives, targeting police stations. Only recently have public spaces, such as railway stations or markets, been targeted.
How will the attacks impact Xinjiang’s future?
President Xi Jinping has pledged to “strike hard” at terror groups. The Chinese government is likely to further bolster its already considerable security deployments in the region. Cities such as Urumqi and Kashgar are usually under tight surveillance, especially after riots between local Uighurs and majority Han Chinese, whose population in the region has been growing steadily, in 2009 that left at least 197 people killed and more than a thousand injured in Urumqi.
The Chinese government faces a difficult dilemma. While the government understandably needs to respond decisively to defuse what Mr. Xi described recently as the “rapid momentum” of terror groups, its earlier “strike hard” campaigns have been unpopular with many local Uighurs and fuelled anger, as they have detained dozens of young Uighur men, some of whom have been jailed without open trials.
What is behind Uighur-Han Chinese tensions?
Following the ethnic riots in Urumqi in 2009, the government faced calls from many Uighur scholars to rethink its development approach in Xinjiang, which emphasised fast growth, mainly through tapping energy resources, and was led by powerful State-run companies that often prefer to hire Mandarin-speaking Han Chinese, rather than local Uighurs. The perception among many locals that the benefits of growth were not being shared evenly. Prominent Uighur economist Ilham Tohti has written of rising unemployment among Uighur youth as one reason behind recent incidents. Mr. Tohti’s criticisms of the growth model have angered the government, which recently moved to detain him (China detains prominent Uighur scholar).
Will the attacks impact China’s ties with Pakistan?
On Thursday, visiting Pakistan President Mamnoon Hussain, in Shanghai for a regional security summit, in strong terms pledged support to China and to “combat the terrorists”, describing the ETIM as “a common enemy of Pakistan and China”. Many Chinese officials believe the ETIM’s leaders are hiding out in Pakistan, in areas near the Afghanistan border. China has, publicly at least, strongly backed Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy. Even this week, the President, Xi Jinping, told his Pakistani counterpart China supported Pakistan following a counterterrorism strategy “according to its national conditions”.
While China is concerned about the spreading Jihadist threat from beyond its borders, at the same time it is also moving ahead with deepening close economic links with Pakistan by building a transport and energy corridor through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) (Xinjiang's PoK links cloud China's stance on Kashmir) . Beijing has, so far at least, shown no signs of rethinking its close “all-weather” strategic embrace of its western neighbour, and is unlikely to do so.