Perhaps most incendiary are campaigns against women who wear head scarves and young men with beards. The crackdown, which the local authorities describe as a battle against religious extremism, is an expression of Beijing’s fears that the militant Islamism that has destabilized Pakistan and Afghanistan could complicate its efforts to turn Xinjiang into a regional trading hub.
This summer, a dozen or more instances of bloodshed claimed scores of lives, mostly in the fertile crescent of southern Xinjiang, the Uighur heartland. On Aug. 20, more than two dozen people were shot dead in what the authorities called “an anti-terror” operation in Kashgar Prefecture; earlier this month, at least three others were shot dead and 20 wounded outside a police station in Aksu Prefecture after officers opened fire on demonstrators demanding the release of those arrested for “illegal religious activities,” according to the Global Times, an English publication of the People’s Daily, in an article later removed from the Internet.
Farther north, in Turpan Prefecture, exile groups say at least 46 people were killed on June 26 during a clash between police and demonstrators. A week before the Hotan shootings, seven Han Chinese working on a dam project outside the city were hacked to death, officials say.
Much of the violence goes unreported in the Chinese media, but the cases that are publicized are invariably described as “terror attacks” carried out by “separatists,” some of whom, the government claims, have been trained abroad. Analysts have cast doubt on such assertions, saying that the suspects are often armed with only rudimentary weapons, like knives.
The central government has become increasingly alarmed by its inability to stanch the unrest. In the days after the violence in Hotan, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) held a special meeting in Beijing and senior leaders were dispatched to calm jittery Xinjiang residents.
“We will step up actions to crack down upon terrorist groups and extremist organizations and track the wanted,” said Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Political Consultative Conference chairman Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲), the Chinese leader in charge of ethnic and religious affairs, Xinhua reported.
However, residents say the Hanerik shooting victims were unarmed civilians simply seeking an end to heavy-handed policing. The seeds of the confrontation were planted in mid-June, when the authorities detained Mettursun Metseydi, the young imam of an unauthorized mosque on the rural edge of Hanerik. Metseydi had been drawing increasingly large crowds with sermons that condemned the government’s religious restrictions, most pointedly on head coverings.
The rules imposed fines on Hotan taxi drivers who picked up veiled women and prohibited doctors from treating women who refused to remove headscarves, a number of residents said.
“The imam said that forcing women to remove their veils during police checks was a humiliation,” a teacher whose cousin attended the mosque said.
According to several accounts, including local Uighur officials who spoke to Radio Free Asia, the authorities sealed the mosque on June 21, but congregants forced their way in the following Friday. At about 1:30pm, after worshiping on their own, the men spilled into the street brimming with anger. Before long, about 400 people had gathered, and it was decided that they would march to Hotan.