Part of the backlash, experts and local residents say, has been prompted by increasingly intrusive restrictions on religion. Civil servants can be fired for joining Friday afternoon prayer services, and Uighur college students say they are often required to eat lunch in school cafeterias during the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast. In cities across the region, signs warn people against public prayer, and video cameras are pointed at the doorways of local mosques. Residents also say the government maintains an extensive web of paid informers and monitors Internet traffic and cellphone conversations.
Such policies are born out of concern that the radical Islam that has destabilized neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan will take root in Xinjiang, a fear not entirely unfounded given the region’s proximity to lawless countries that have provided a haven for a kaleidoscope of jihadists from across the Muslim world, including some Uighurs.
However, experts say the raids on unsanctioned religious schools and other restrictions have prompted even greater religiosity.
“Five years ago, you would have been shocked to see a veiled woman in Urumqi, but not anymore,” said a Han academic at Xinjiang University who is critical of Beijing’s policies in the region. “For a lot of Uighurs, growing a beard and asking your wife to cover her head in public has become an act of defiance.”
Despite the growing death toll, analysts say China’s new leadership is unlikely to reconsider its hard-line policies any time soon. During a state visit to four Central Asia nations last month that sought to bolster Xinjiang’s role as the linchpin of a revitalized Silk Road, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) vowed to continue the battle against what he described as the “three forces” of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism, according to Xinhua news agency.
By failing to consider the root causes of Uighur discontent, Beijing could unwittingly radicalize a generation of young people, said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who is based in Hong Kong.
“The entire Uighur ethnicity feels asphyxiated, having become suspect as sympathetic to extremism,” he said. “Xinjiang is trapped in a vicious circle of increased repression that only leads to more violence.”