China’s far northwestern Xinjiang region is settled primarily by the Muslim Uighurs who have long chafed under Chinese rule. In recent years, there have been episodes of violence between locals and security forces, but who is at fault remains a matter of dispute.
At the end of December, the Chinese government reported a shootout in Xinjiang, in which eight people were killed.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei recounts the official version of events.
He says that it was a police operation, that led to the rescue of two herdsmen who had been kidnapped by a terrorist group that was headed to what Beijing said were “foreign jihad camps.”
The state-run Xinhua news agency says the confrontation involved a gang of 15 “violent terrorists”. Its reporting does not specify whether the terrorists were ethnic Uighur, a Muslim minority that makes up almost 90 percent of the population of Hotan county, where the conflict took place.
Apart from the eight deaths, four people were injured in the shootout, and four others detained. For Chinese authorities, the guilt of those involved is not in doubt.
Hong says that this was definitely an act of terrorism.
When there have been similar incidents in Xinjiang in the past, Uighur groups overseas have disputed China’s version of events – and this time was no different.
Dilshat Rexit, spokesman for the World Uighur Congress, an exile group based in Munich, says that the 15 Uighurs in question were unhappy under Chinese rule and were trying to flee the country. He denies that the group had any link with terrorist organizations.
Rexit accuses the Chinese government of linking Uighur people with global terrorism as an excuse for what he describes as systematic suppression in Xinjiang.
Rexit says that many Uighurs are distressed by China’s growing interference on the minority’s cultural and religious activities, and that such policies are the main cause for the area’s restiveness.
Earlier this year 18 Uighur men, who were opposed to a ban on Islamic women wearing a veil, attacked a Hotan police station with bombs and knives, killing two policemen and taking hostages.
Raffaello Pantucci is a Shanghai-based associate fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at London’s Kings College.
He says despite differing interpretations of the most recent events in Hotan, one fact remains the same in both accounts.
“It seems clear that both of the stories agree that there were people leaving, people were trying to leave which suggests that there is some sort of tension that is obviously going on in the background,” noted Pantucci.
Pantucci acknowledges that there are small groups of extremist Uighurs who are reported to have posted threatening videos online, but he says he does not see an overall Uighur trend toward terrorism. At the same time, though, he warns that if the Chinese government’s policies are too harsh, they may in fact push more Uighurs toward fundamentalism.
“By reacting to any expression of religion or religiosity as a manifestation of extremism that could lead to violence, you are potentially pushing individuals that might be finding religion as a greater solace into sort of more dangerous and violent direction,” Pantucci said.
Simmering ethnic tensions in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, erupted in July 2009. Uighurs were demonstrating against an ethnically-motivated killing at a factory in southern China. The protest turned violent, with Uighurs targeting residents of China’s ethnic Han majority. About 200 people, mostly Han Chinese, were killed.