A police crackdown meant to quell militants in China's rugged frontier of Xinjiang has failed to prevent a surge of attacks, and analysts say Beijing's tactics may actually be encouraging more violence among the region's usually moderate Muslims.
How China deals with Xinjiang is a concern for the rest of the world. The vast area of deserts and mountains borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and several Central Asian republics and is home to a sizable Muslim population that could be a valuable ally in the global struggle against extremism.
The latest wave of attacks on security – the worst in a decade – began last week, just days before the Olympics' opening ceremony on the opposite end of the country, some 1,740 miles to the east.
No group has claimed responsibility for the deadly bombings and stabbings, but police have blamed terrorists among the Uighurs – a Muslim ethnic minority of about 8 million people who have long chafed under Chinese rule. Uighurs and Kazaks established an independent state called the East Turkestan Republic in western Xinjiang in 1944-49, but the territory was retaken by China after the Communist Revolution.
Never miss a local story.
Chinese officials insist relations between the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-goors) and Chinese are harmonious and that the violence is being carried out by radical fringe elements.
“The majority of people living in Xinjiang support national unification and are opposed to terrorism, extremists and separatists,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing earlier this week.
But Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, believes the violence is a sign the latest “Strike Hard” campaign is driving more Uighurs toward militant Islam. Human rights groups say what began as a campaign against organized crime, drugs and pornography has become a cover to crack down on Uighurs.
“There is extremist propaganda that is radicalizing a segment of the population, but government action itself has hastened the pace of radicalization,” said Gunaratna.
Gunaratna said China should take a softer approach with the Uighurs and worry more about Pakistan-based militant groups, whose members slip across the border to train and recruit Uighurs.
The Uighurs have practiced Sunni Islam or the mystical Sufi tradition, but many live a moderate lifestyle, which includes drinking alcohol and allowing women to work. Men often wear skull caps, while colorful head scarves are popular with women, though it's common to see young Uighur women strutting around in designer jeans and high heels.
Some Uighurs yearn for independence, but many consider that goal unrealistic. They doubt China will ever let go of a region that's rich in minerals, coal, oil and natural gas. Xinjiang is also the country's main nuclear test site and a defensive buffer against possible attacks from the West.