China’s Struggle to Contain Ethnic Unrest Continues

Stratfor Global Intelligence, July 2, 2013

Violence has been escalating in China’s restive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region once again, highlighting the country’s struggle to maintain stability in its ethnically diverse border regions. In past weeks, several deadly clashes have erupted in the province, many of them directly targeting local police and security forces. In response, and ahead of the fourth anniversary of similar bloody riots that left nearly 200 people dead in Xinjiang on July 5, 2009, the military and other authorities have ramped up security in the far-western region.

Unrest is common in Xinjiang, where ethnic and religious minority groups resent Beijing’s heavy-handed attempts to establish central control as well as the influxes of Han Chinese settlers into the region as part of Beijing’s effort to dilute the ethnic concentration. As a result, Beijing has been experimenting with more conciliatory policies toward the minorities. However, with Beijing struggling to balance its desire for improved minority relations with the imperative to maintain stability along the Chinese periphery, the escalating violence in Xinjiang may make such policies more difficult to implement.

On June 26, 35 people were reportedly killed after authorities opened fire on what state media called a knife-wielding mob that had attacked police stations and other sites in the Lukqun township of Turpan prefecture, a wealthy and culturally diverse part of northeastern Xinjiang that has been largely immune to ethnic tensions. Two days later, state-owned media reported a violent confrontation with authorities outside a mosque in the southern prefecture of Hotan that purportedly left two ethnic Uighurs dead. This was followed by another incident June 29 in a nearby county in Hotan, during which more than 100 people on motorbikes reportedly attacked a police station, according to state media, while another group attempted to “incite trouble” at a local shopping area.

While details about the violence in Hotan remain unclear, Chinese officials said a 17-member terrorist group provoked the riots in Turpan in a premeditated attack. In recent years, the term “terrorist” has no longer been reserved only for specific groups, such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, but has been applied more generally to any organization behind clashes. However, state media this time specifically said Syrian rebels had trained the local Muslim extremists who incited the violence. {snip}

In response to the attacks, Beijing vowed to “crack down on terrorist groups” in the region. The government increased security patrols in the area and staged a large-scale military exercise June 29, when the army used tanks and other vehicles to shut down access to several streets in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.

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Meanwhile, the central government is also facing ethnic issues elsewhere in China. In neighboring Tibet, for example, self-immolations and protests have continued sporadically in recent months. Similarly, to the east, ethnic distrust between Mongolians and Han workers was on the upswing following a series of protests since 2011, reflecting deep-seated tensions over the region’s rapid economic development and influx of ethnic Han.

Ethnic unrest in China differs in cause and scope from one restive region to another. And taken individually, each incident may not pose a serious threat to central government control. Combined, however, the recent clashes highlight the persistent and complicated nature of the stabilization challenges facing Beijing in ethnic regions around the country.

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