While Beijing blames a handful of separatists with overseas support for incidents such as Saturday’s horrific attacks in Kunming, analysts and exile groups point to a long history of tension between Chinese authorities and the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority who make up more than 40 percent of the population in Xinjiang Province.
The intended remedies of aggressive economic development and tighter controls — the security budget has quadrupled to US$1 billion since 2009 and religious restrictions have increased — have not prevented repeated outbreaks of violence in the northwestern region and beyond.
Many analysts suggest they have exacerbated the problem.
Clashes and attacks in the late 1990s appeared to have been suppressed by a government crackdown. However, days before the Beijing Olympics opened in 2008, 16 border police officers were killed in an attack in Kashgar. The following year, almost 200 died when Uighurs in Urumqi assaulted Han Chinese and Han launched revenge attacks.
Since then, unrest has escalated and intensified, with more than 100 people dying in the last year alone. For the Chinese government, such incidents are proof of a sophisticated, systematic and far-reaching terrorist network intent on creating a separate state of East Turkestan.
Magnus Ranstorp of the Swedish National Defence College said it was possible that attackers in Kunming might have drawn tactical inspiration from overseas, but the interaction of Uighur militants with foreign groups had been limited, nor did foreign terrorist organizations appear particularly interested in the region.
Wang Lixiong (王力雄), a Han Chinese writer well known for his writings on ethnic policy, asked why the terrorist attacks had increased given the security crackdown.
“Mao Zedong (毛澤東) said there is no hate without reason. What does result in the hate from Xinjiang?” he wrote.
Others suggest that accelerated development from 2009 — partly due to wider stimulus measures and a belief that raising incomes would reduce dissatisfaction — has backfired.
“The government says: ‘We are doing everything we can to help them and raise incomes,’ but the policies that do that might actually create a lot of discontent among the population,” said Andrew Fisher, an expert on development in minority areas of western China at Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Many in the Uighur community feel they have not benefited, saying that Han are far more likely to have white-collar jobs. Others feel that an influx of migrants to the region is eroding their culture.
Officials have said that expanding Chinese-language education will give people a better chance against Han competitors in the job market, but that has also increased concerns about the erosion of Uighur language and culture.
In recent years, a growing number of Chinese academics have suggested that China should recast its policy on ethnic minorities entirely.
However, Fischer said that would be likely to entrench the movement toward an increasingly assimilationist policy.
“I think there’s a powder keg there. It is an extremely pressurized situation,” he said.