China market attack kills dozens: who is to blame?

May 22, 2014

Explosives thrown from vehicles ripped through a street market in China's troubled Xinjiang region

STR/AFP/Getty Images

At least 31 people have been killed at an open market in Urumqi, China after attackers ploughed two vehicles into shoppers. Explosives were thrown from the vehicles, and one of the vehicles exploded. The attack is being described as a "serious violent terrorist incident" by Chinese authorities. One witness told Reuters the market was "total chaos" with hawkers and shoppers "running everywhere", while photos showed riot police on the scene and bodies lying amid flames.

The attack is the deadliest act of violence in the troubled Xinjiang region for years. Last month, three people were killed and 79 injured in a bomb and knife attack at Urumqi's south railway station, also in the western region of Xinjiang. In March, 29 people were stabbed to death and almost 150 people were wounded at a train station in the south-western city of Kunming, south-west China. Eyewitnesses at Kunming reported that attackers used curved swords and meat cleavers to stab people at random.

Chinese officials have blamed all three incidents – as well as a series of other violent attacks in Xinjiang – on Uighur separatists.

Who are the Uighurs?

A long history of tension exists between Chinese authorities and the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang province, The Guardian says. Uighurs are ethnically Turkic Muslims who comprise 40 per cent of the population in the north-western region of the country. The Uighurs briefly declared independence in the first part of the 20th century, but the region was brought back under control by communist China in 1949.

What do the Uighurs want?

Many say that Uighurs are agitating for full separation from China. Attacks credited to Uighurs in the late 1990s were suppressed by a government crackdown, but violence flared again just before the opening of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 when militants attacked and killed 16 border police officers in Kashgar. In 2009 almost 200 people died when Uighurs attacked Han Chinese in Uruqmi, which led to a period of reciprocal bloodshed.

In the years since, violence has escalated. The Chinese government points to ongoing attacks as evidence of a sophisticated terrorist network who wish to re-establish a separatist state in East Turkestan, The Guardian reports.

Why are they attacking now?

Yesterday's attack came on the same day that Xinjiang's high court announced 39 people had been convicted and sentenced for taking part in "terrorist organisations" and disseminating materials that "incited violence and ethnic disunity", reports the Wall Street Journal. Chinese forces have stepped up security in the region in recent weeks, but Uighur activists have warned that years of heavy policing has contributed to an increased sense of marginalisation among Uighurs.

The Kunming massacre in March came days before a series of high-profile meetings in Beijing, where China's official lawmakers were due to approve laws and policies proposed by the country's ruling Communist party. Some analysts believe that the attack was timed to highlight China's "repressive" policies towards ethnic minorities. The Financial Times notes that at the very least it highlights "the simmering discontent among increasingly radicalised populations in the vast western stretches of the country".

April's attack took place as President Xi Jinping completed a tour of the Xinjiang region, his first visit since he became president in 2012. The attack came hours after the president had spoken about his government's commitment to combating terrorism. The timing and location would suggest “an ability to strike for maximum impact”, says the WSJ.

Why are they using knives?

China bans private ownership of guns, but efforts to regulate the purchase of knives have been largely unsuccessful. Officials have implemented sporadic bans on knife sales ahead of major events, such as the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in 2009, Quartz reports. In 2008 the government required that citizens register with their national ID cards before purchasing daggers and knives with blades over 22 cm (8.6 inches) long, but such efforts have done little to prevent new incidents of knife crime.

China points to statistics that suggest it has a lower crime rate than almost anywhere in the world - China's homicide rate stands at 0.8 cases per 100,000 people. In Japan, a country known for its low crime rate, it is 1.14, and Switzerland is 1.27, but such statistics are difficult to verify.

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