(Reuters) – Three people were killed and 79 wounded in a bomb and knife attack at a train station in the far western region of China on Wednesday, state media said, as President Xi Jinping was wrapping up a vist to the area.
Xi promised “decisive actions” against the “terrorists” behind the attack in Xinjiang, a region beset for years by violence the government blames on Islamist militants and separatists seeking an independent state called East Turkestan.
Quoting police, Xinhua news agency said “knife-wielding mobs slashed people” at an exit of the South Railway Station of Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, and set off explosives.
Pictures on China’s Twitter-like Weibo site showed blood on suitcases and debris on the ground in front of the station. Many posts carrying the images were later removed by censors.
Xinhua said the station re-opened at 9 p.m. (9.00 a.m. ET), around two hours after the attack, under heavy police presence. Four people were seriously wounded but were in stable condition.
It was not clear if President Xi was still in Xinjiang at the time of the attack, at the end of his four-day visit to the region during which he stressed tough policing to fight “terrorists”.
Responding to the attack, he said: “The battle to combat violence and terrorism will not allow even a moment of slackness, and decisive actions must be taken to resolutely suppress the terrorists’ rampant momentum,” Xinhua reported.
Xi said the battle against separatists would be “long-term, complicated and acute”.
Exiles and many rights groups say the cause of unrest in the resource-rich and strategically located region is heavy-handed conduct by authorities, including curbs on Islam and the culture and language of its Muslim Uighur people.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, said he feared the incident would lead to a new round of repression against Xinjiang’s Uighurs.
“It’s extremely worrying. No matter what happens, China first of all represses the Uighurs, leading to many innocent Uighurs being locked up,” he said by telephone.
“We can see from this that Xinjiang is in a period of turmoil, and such incidents could happen again at any time. This is the trend and it’s directly related to Beijing’s policies.”
Unrest in Xinjiang has caused the deaths of more than 100 people in the past year, prompting a tougher stance against Turkic-language speaking Uighurs, many of whom resent government controls on their culture and religion.
Urumqi was the scene of deadly ethnic riots in 2009, with nearly 200 people killed when Uighurs clashed with members of the majority ethnic Han Chinese community. It has been relatively calm since.
Many Chinese took to the Weibo microblogging service to express anger and defiance at the station attack, including Hu Xijin, editor of the influential tabloid the Global Times, who wrote: “We will never be cowed by a handful of bad people.”
China’s nervousness about militancy, especially Islamic militancy, has grown since a car burst into flames on the edge of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October, and 29 people were stabbed to death last month in the southwestern city of Kunming.
The government blamed Xinjiang militants for both incidents.
During his visit, Xinhua quoted Xi as saying: “The long-term stability of Xinjiang is vital to the whole country’s reform, development and stability; to the country’s unity, ethnic harmony and national security as well as to the great revival of the Chinese nation.”
Uighurs have traditionally followed a moderate form of Islam but many have begun adopting practices more commonly seen in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, such as full-face veils for women, as China has intensified a security crackdown in recent years.
China reacted to the 2009 riots by pumping money into less-developed southern Xinjiang, in an implicit recognition of the economic causes of the unrest. But it has taken a much harsher line of late, especially towards dissenters.
The government detained Ilham Tohti, a Beijing economics professor who has championed Uighur rights, in January and subsequently charged him with separatism.
Advocates for Tohti say he has challenged the government’s version of several incidents involving Uighurs, including the car fire on the edge of Tiananmen Square.
An explosion occurred around 7pm Beijing time on Wednesday at the Urumqi railway station in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. At least 50 were injured, Chinese media quoted the police as saying.
Pictures circulating online show an area of about 100 square meters rattled, with broken luggage littering the partially blackened ground. Armed police has sealed the area for investigation.
News of the explosion initially spread on Weibo but was quickly censored. A search of “Urumqi explosion” or “Urumqi railway” returned no news of the incident.
The top headlines at major Chinese online news outlets such as Sohu, Sina and Tencent News, remain about President Xi Jinping’s recent trip to Xinjiang, where he inspected a military unit and visited an armed police squad for an anti-terrorism drill. Just yesterday, CCTV reported that Xi made a visit to a mosque in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang where the explosion occurred.
Xi Jinping visiting with ethnic Uighurs in the provincial the capital city of Xinjiang on April 29, 2014.
The four-day visit was the first by the president to the region after the 18th Party Congress and is seen as sending a strong signal about the government’s determination to maintain stability in the region, which has seen increased violence due to ethnic tension in recent years. The leadership has stepped up its anti-terrorism efforts after a mob of eight, later identified by the government as belonging to Xinjiang separatist forces, led a violent knife attack that killed 29 and injured 143 last month. Xi has referred to the Kashgar region in western Xinjiang, as part of the “frontier for countering terrorism and safeguarding stability.”
Home to a population of 19.3 million, of which 11.6 million are ethnic minorities, Xinjiang has been a hub of ethnic, religious and economic tensions due to the government’s heavy oversight and aggressive efforts at assimilation.
By Shannon Tiezzi
April 29, 2014
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Xinjiang on April 27 to inspect the situation in the special administrative region. His trip was extensively covered by China’s state media,although the coverage appeared only on the Chinese-language version of Xinhua’s website. According to Xinhua, it was Xi’s first visit to the far-western province since the 18th National Party Congress, where Xi was officially named the top leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The major goal of Xi’s trip was said to be “deeply implement the spirit of the Third Plenum,” which placed a heavy emphasis on reforms.
While in Xinjiang, Xi visited military and paramilitary outposts in Kashgar, where much of the recent violence in Xinjiang has been centered. Xi praised the army for embodying the concept of many ethnicities uniting to form one family. However, in a nod to the complex situation in Xinjiang, Xi also offered encouragement to the troops. “The more complex and severe the environment, the more able we are to sharpen our willpower and skill,” he said, urging the Xinjiang troops to reach new achievements for their homeland and the people.
On Monday, Xi observed counterterrorism and riot control drills in Kashgar. Afterwards, he called Kashgar the “front line” for counterterrorism and stability preservation. Local police stations will play a special role in this effort — Xi called them “fists and daggers.” Xi exhorted police forces in Xinjiang to follow the example of Qi Jiguang, a 16th century Chinese general famous for successfully battling Japanese pirates. Xi was particularly interested in Qi Jiguang’s success with training and equipping a local army, hinting that Xi may want to see more local Xinjiangese taking a role in security operations.
However, in addition to a military focus, Xi also emphasized the need for a better quality of life in Xinjiang. Xi visited a Uyghur ethnic village, and heard high praise for the Party’s policies. In response, Xi said that “policies must revolve around popular will and be formulated for the benefit of the people.” He especially emphasized the role of economic development in the region, telling local leaders that construction projects and new industries must provide employment and increased income for the local people, “no matter who is investing” in the projects.
When discussing both security and the economy, Xi’s major theme was the concept of China as one family containing many ethnic groups. “We must push forward ethnic unity and finish the construction of Xinjiang,” Xi said after watching a traditional performance of song. As part of this, he encouraged students at a local elementary school to be bilingual, speaking both the Uyghur language and standard Mandarin Chinese. Teaching ethnic minority children to speak Mandarin, Xi said, will “not only make it easier [for the students] to find jobs in the future, more importantly, it will make a huge contribution to pushing forward ethnic unity.” However, he also encouraged the Mandarin teachers to study the Uyghur language so as to better communicate with their students.
On one hand, Xi’s tour of Xinjiang was a typical propaganda campaign, designed to highlight Xi’s concern for and conversations with the common people at each of his stops. Most of the coverage, complete with picture, was initially reported on Xinhua’s official Weibo microblog and then reposted by China’s other media outlets. The tour, then, can be seen as more evidence of Xi’s desire to brand himself as a friend to the ‘common man’ — a strategy Western leaders have long since perfected.
However, behind all the fluff, Xi’s tour of Xinjiang makes it clear what Beijing’s priorities are for the restive western province. Counterterrorism will naturally remain a high priority — China’s leaders will spare no effort to prevent another incident like the deadly knife attack at Kunming Railway Station. Other than a renewed emphasis on counterterrorism, though, Xi’s stance towards Xinjiang is similar to the CPC’s long-standing policies. The major emphasis is on economic development, with emphasis also on the abstract concept of “ethnic unity.”
On the economic development front, Xinjiang in general and Kashgar in particular are a crucial part of China’s vision for a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that will link China to the west, including Central Asian states as well as the Middle East and Europe. Kashgar is also supposed to be the Chinese hub for the planned China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. In Xinjiang, China’s leaders are not simply promoting economic development for development’s sake. Rather, Xinjiang is a crucial piece of China’s long-term economic and even diplomatic strategy. To make sure this goal in achieved, leaders will need to prevent future unrest in Xinjiang — putting even more pressure on the need for counterterroroism and “ethnic unity.”