A bomb attack at a railway station in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region of China, on Wednesday killed three people and wounded 79 -- a bombing by two individuals who according to various media reports were suicide bombers. If it turns out to be the work of Uighur extremists, the attack would intensify the one internal security threat the Chinese government has been unable to control.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that the People’s Daily newspaper’s microblog wrote two attackers had strapped bombs to their bodies but did not specifically say the attack was a result of a suicide bomber. The report did not appear on the People’s Daily English version.
The Xinjiang regional government said on its official news website that the two attackers both died in the bombing and had “long been influenced by extremist religious thought and participated in extremist religious activities.” Its website identified Sedierding Shawuit, a 39-year-old man from Xinjiang’s Aksu region, as one of the attackers.
Though no one has claimed responsibility for the incident, the attackers could be linked to the Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang, a resource-rich western China region where the local majority is dissatisfied with the rule of the minority Han Chinese. The Chinese government has linked several past attacks to Uighur extremists.
If the government officially announces that the attack at the railway station in Urumqi was in fact a suicide bombing, it would be the first known suicide attack in the country. Dru Gladney, an anthropology professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and an expert on Xinjiang, said the confirmation of a suicide bomb attack would be a “game changer” for China as it would imply that those connected to the attack had ties to larger jihadi groups, such as al-Qaeda.
The Chinese government has alleged that members of the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement, whose members are Uighur Muslim militants, have obtained funds and training from al-Qaeda.
The Chinese government may not say the attack was a suicide bombing mission because it could make the situation in Xinjiang worse, Gladney said. “Its main mantra is stability and harmony, which is definitely not the case on the ground,” Gladney said. “They are worried about copycats.”
But Stuart Gottlieb, a professor of international affairs who specializes on terrorism at Columbia University, said some Uighurs have long been connected to jihadi movements and the possibility of a suicide bomb attack in Xinjiang is “not surprising.”
Uighur activists claim the Chinese government has suppressed the Uighur people economically and religiously for decades, after incorporating the Uighur state of the East Turkestan Republic with the foundation of the China People’s Republic in 1949. At the time the Uighurs made up a majority of the population in the region, but as the Han migrated out to the region to work for the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp. (XPPC), the Uighur population became a minority. Uighur rights groups claim the government’s policy in the region benefits the Han and ignores the Uighur.
Chinese officials claim that the government has improved conditions in the region and that the annual salary of rural villagers continuous to increase drastically. In the past 15 years the government has opened new transportation infrastructure and natural gas pipelines -- but despite the region’s economic development, Uighurs in the area say they are still suffering from high unemployment rates as the Han get the better jobs.
The region has seen a number of attacks over the past year. In 2009 riots broke out in Urumqi, and the Uighur cause hit home for Chinese far away from the region in October of 2013 when five people were killed and 38 injured in an attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The government blamed Uighur separatists for the attack, in which an SUV rammed into a crowd and exploded. In March, in another episode far away from Xinjiang, 29 people were killed as alleged Uighur militants stabbed people in the crowd at a railway station in Kunming, south-west China.
“Clear government policies of repression and control of the region have not been able to prevent the large-scale hits. Now it looks like all the money going into the region hasn’t worked either,” Gladney said. “What needs to be done is more creative dialogues where Uighurs themselves are engaged in policy. Given the importance of Xinjiang to China, they will find a way.”