Earlier this month, a knife-wielding gang attacked security guards at a coal mine in Xinjiang, a volatile region in the northwest of China. By the time the attack was repelled, at least 40 people had been killed or injured, according to a report by Radio Free Asia, which quoted a local state security chief about the incident four days after it occurred.
Chinese state media still hasn’t reported on the Sept. 18 coal mine attack, more than two weeks later. It’s only the latest example of what appears to be a Chinese government news blackout on growing violence in Xinjiang, an oil-rich region crucial to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan for a Silk Road economic development belt stretching across Asia.
Other unpublicized incidents include a police shooting of eight suspects in June; the police killing of two men in May after they reportedly attacked a patrol; and a Han Chinese town official knifed to death, also in May.
The incidents have been reported by Radio Free Asia, a news outlet partly funded by the U.S. government, which has followed closely clashes between Chinese authorities and Muslim Uighurs, the dominant ethnic group in Xinjiang.
Analysts say that official reports of violence have always been sketchy from Xinjiang. But lately, they agree, the government is keeping a relatively tight lid on news about ethnic unrest.
“It doesn’t fit with the narrative,” said James Leibold, an expert at La Trobe University in Australia who specializes in China’s ethnic policies. He said that Xi has been trying to present himself as a strongman who can unite the country and tame its wild western frontier. “There’s a reason he would want to de-emphasize these kinds of incidents,” said Leibold.
What little is known about recent clashes comes from a lone Uighur reporter for Radio Free Asia, Shohret Hoshur. From his office in Washington, Hoshur manages to persuade police chiefs and other officials in Xinjiang to talk to him about incidents he hears about from other sources.
China contends that extremist separatist groups are responsible for inspiring or carrying out attacks in Xinjiang. But some security experts say that much of the violence stems from spontaneous resistance to actions by police and authorities.
On Sept. 18, the same day as the coal mine attack in Aksu prefecture, Hoshur testified before a U.S. congressional committee on conditions in his native Xinjiang.
“Since Xi Jinping came to power, the situation in the region has been worsening with the number of violent events taking place,” said Hoshur, speaking to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
Xinjiang residents, he said, were hopeful Xi might improve ethnic relations when he became president in 2013. “Unfortunately the Uighurs in the region have not seen any positive change,” Hoshur said. “Instead they see harsh crackdowns.”
Covering one-sixth of China’s land mass, Xinjiang is a vast landscape of mountains, deserts and oases that borders Mongolia, Kazakhstan and six other countries. The area is officially known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, but Uighurs generally dispute they enjoy true autonomy. Many resent Beijing’s rule and the influx of Han Chinese that have streamed into Xinjiang in recent decades.
In 2009, rioting broke out in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Some 197 people died and 1,700 were injured, according to official figures. Uighur support groups say the death toll was far higher.
In 2014, a wave of attacks involving Uighurs gained international attention. In March of that year, a knife-wielding gang attacked passengers at a train station in Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province. The attack left 29 civilians and four perpetrators dead, and injured more than 140 others.
Two months later, five Uighur suicide bombers in a pair of cars killed more than 35 people on an Urumqi shopping street. Two months after that, police shot and killed dozens of knife-wielding Uighurs in Yarkand, a city in southern Xinjiang. The Uighur mob apparently was angered by government restrictions on their religious practices imposed during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Since Xi Jinping came to power, the situation in the region has been worsening with the number of violent events taking place.
Shohret Hoshur, Uighur reporter for Radio Free Asia
All these major incidents were reported in Chinese state media, but it would have been hard to ignore them. All took place in highly public places, with photos shared widely on China’s Internet before government censors could erase them.
Since those 2014 incidents, however, China has tightened security across Xinjiang and launched a “strike hard” campaign to round up potential terrorists. The government has offered rewards of up to 30,000 yuan – about $4,800 – for information on suspects.
In July, a McClatchy reporter saw numerous armored patrol vehicles in the neighborhood of Urumqi where last year’s attacks took place. Police with submachine guns patrolled a nearby park.
“Ever since the incident, the security in this area has increased,” said Dong Zhaohua, a Han Chinese who runs a fruit shop on the street. “It is very safe now. Nothing like that incident has happened again.”
Leibold, the La Trobe scholar, said there are two possible theories on why reports of Xinjiang violence have diminished. One is that the number of incidents has actually declined. “That is entirely possible, given the resources the government has thrown at it,” he said.
But it’s also possible, he added, that the government wants to limit publicity about ethnic conflicts. One of President Xi’s top priorities is promotion of the Silk Road economic development belt, which seeks to build modern trade and commerce along the ancient camel route of Central Asia.
This also is a particularly sensitive time for Chinese officials. Xi just finished his first U.S. visit as Chinese president, and on Thursday, China held a high-profile celebration to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
Hoshur, the Radio Free Asia reporter, said he has little doubt that Beijng has curtailed state media coverage about violence in the region, based on his independent reporting.
Since 2014, China has tightened security across Xinjiang and launched a “strike hard” campaign to round up potential terrorists.
“There has been a noticeable drop off,” he said in an email exchange with McClatchy. “They tend now to avoid reporting these events at all.”
Raffaello Pantucci, a Central Asian security expert based in London, said he also has noticed a marked increase in “good news” stories by Chinese state media about ethnic relations in Xinjiang. “Clearly something is being coordinated,” said Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute.
Hoshur ticks off several reasons why Chinese leaders would want to put the best face on conditions in Xinjiang. One is they want to avoid international attention. Another is that they “don’t want to scare off” Han Chinese immigrants, who may be weighing whether to take jobs in Xinjiang.
In his Sept. 22 report about the Aksu coal mine attack, Hoshur interviewed both a chief of state security at a nearby mine, Jamal Eysa, and Zhang Jianje, a security guard employed by the county government near the mine. They described at least 40 people being killed, including five police officers and numerous “separatist” insurgents. A possible motive of the attack was to seize dynamite stored at the mine.
China contends that extremist separatist groups, including one called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, are responsible for inspiring or carrying out the attacks. But some security experts doubt that ETIM is a fully functional organization and say that much of the violence stems from spontaneous resistance to actions by police and authorities.
Hoshur, who left Xinjiang in 1994, has been reporting since 2007 for Radio Free Asia. He said his family has paid a steep price for his reporting.
Last year, Chinese authorities sentenced one of his brothers in Xinjiang to five years in prison for violating state security laws. His two other brothers were put on trial and are still awaiting sentencing.
Both the U.S. State Department and media groups have protested the arrests, which Hoshur said are part of a campaign of intimidation against his family.
He has vowed not to bend to the pressure.
“One thing is certain – I cannot give up my work at Radio Free Asia,” he told the congressional committee this month. “As tensions and violence have escalated in the XUAR (Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region), the Uighur people yearn for trustworthy news.”
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth