The Chinese government has mobilized over 10,000 paramilitary police officers in a bid to reassert control in Xinjiang Province following a recent spate of violence this month.
The government has accused terrorist elements of the Uighur people, an ethnic minority of Muslims in China’s furthest northwestern region, for executing a number of terrorist attacks in recent years that have resulted in hundreds of dead.
China is relying on a special branch of its internal defense units, the People’s Armed Police, in a show of force that includes military aircraft and armored vehicles, in addition to the heavily armed police units.
Unrest in Xinjiang has been steadily increasing over the years, primarily between the Uighur people and the Han Chinese, with accusations from both sides of inciting further violence. The region is a strategically important area for the Chinese government, as it houses significant natural resources and access to vital economic ties to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
The region has been long been a multicultural tapestry, straddling a fault line of regional powers; the Chinese asserted control in the 18th century. Following a short-lived Soviet-backed separatist movement that emerged toward the end of World War II, the Communist government eventually absorbed the area, naming it an Autonomous Region in 1955.
Understanding the importance of the vast natural gas, oil, and other resources necessary for a growing China, the Communist Party invested infrastructure and encouraged the immigration of Han Chinese into the area, bringing the present ethnic makeup of the area to roughly 45% Uighur, 40% Han Chinese.
Tensions in the region have steadily increased since outbursts of violence in the mid-2000s, with particularly violence episodes in 2009, 2013, and 2014. The 2014 Kunming knife attack was blamed on Uighur terrorists.
China is particularly concerned with the possibility of a full-blown insurrection, as terrorist attacks within Xinjiang continue, and evidence has shown that Uighur fighters have fought with both the Taliban and ISIS.
This latest heavy-handed response from the Chinese government follows its strategy of resorting to displays of military might when threatened in the region. Previous incidents of violence have led the government to black out social media feeds and news access. While the government insists Muslim fundamentalists are to blame for the unrest, the Uighur population points to repressive government policies which they say benefit only the Han Chinese, and undermine the Uighurs in their own territory.
Image courtesy of Reuters