Anti-Terrorist Drill in Beijing, May 29, 2014
Riot policemen (right) disperse mock rioters during an anti-terrorist drill in Beijing May 29, 2014. More than 2,800 members of Beijing police forces attended this drill as China launched a yearlong nationwide anti-terrorism operation after fatal attacks in Xinjiang and other parts of the country. Reuters/China Daily

SHANGHAI -- Chinese authorities say they have broken up 181 violent terrorist groups in the northwestern region of Xinjiang in the past year -- and that they are making progress in winning public support for their crackdown on terrorism and religious extremism in the region, which has been hit by ethnic tension in recent years.

The crackdown was launched in May of last year after attackers threw explosives into a crowded street market in the region’s capital, Urumqi, killing 39 people. It followed several attacks in public places around China, which authorities said were the work of Islamic separatist groups from Xinjiang. Among these attacks was one in which 31 people were stabbed to death at a railway station in the southwestern city of Kunming. Xinjiang itself saw several other major attacks last year, including one in July on government buildings in Yarkant county, near the western city of Kashgar, where police said they shot dead 59 attackers, while 37 civilians were killed. There also was a series of bomb attacks in Luntai county in September, when six civilians were reported killed, along with 40 attackers.

Now Xinjiang authorities say their crackdown is yielding results: By the end of April, local officials told Chinese media, 181 groups had been broken up, all but a handful of them (less than 4 percent) before they had chances to carry out any attacks. The reports did not give figures on the number of people detained, but the official People’s Daily newspaper said 112 people had turned themselves in to the authorities voluntarily.

Tensions in Xinjiang have grown in recent years, notably since violent riots in 2009, when members of the region’s main indigenous Muslim group, the Uighurs, attacked mainly ethnic Han Chinese residents in Urumqi, killing at least 197 people. China says Islamic extremists from across Xinjiang’s border with Central Asian countries have stirred growing Islamization and opposition to Chinese rule in the region, with the tacit support of Western governments. Beijing has reacted angrily to suggestions by foreign media or experts that the problems in Xinjiang could be partly due to economic disparities between ethnic Uighurs and Han Chinese settlers from other parts of the nation -- or partly due to controls on religious freedom in the region. (One of the state’s main accusations against civil-rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was indicted this month on charges of inciting ethnic hatred, was that he had suggested on social media that there were reasons for the rise of extremism in Xinjiang.)

The latest reports on the current crackdown were at pains to stress public support for the authorities’ action, emphasizing that 81 of the gangs had been broken up after tips provided by citizens. State media reported several cases where family members had turned in relatives who they believed were involved in terrorist cells -- and the official Xinhua news agency said that “wherever there were violent terrorists, there were also citizens rising up to fight violence.” In one case last year, Xinhua said that “more than 30,000 volunteers helped local police chase suspects in Karakax county,” although it did not give further details.

Xinhua also quoted a man whose auxiliary-policeman son was killed in a terrorist attack in February as saying, “One of my sons died for the people’s peace, but I have another son who can fight to the bitter end against the violent terrorists -- [and] if he dies too, then there’s still me!” The news agency also said that local authorities subsequently promised to “offer more than 300 million yuan (about $48 million) in cash rewards to those who helped hunt suspected terrorists.”

Chinese media said the ongoing campaign, which has been extended to the end of this year, was designed to “to root out violent terrorist thought at its source” by targeting gangs, organizers and supporters. It said police and military police had worked together in the campaign, which had also targeted audio and video recordings that promoted violent terrorism, and had intensified crackdowns on illegal border crossings.

Human-rights groups have said the crackdown in Xinjiang has led to abuses of legal process. However, official reports emphasized that the treatment of suspects arrested in the campaign had been “in accordance with the law” -- the People’s Daily pointed out that “a few cases where there were problems with evidence and facts” had been “sent back to the authorities for further checking.” It added that only 8.7 percent of those sentenced during the campaign had appealed their sentences, which it said was “markedly lower than the rate for normal criminal cases” in Xinjiang. No details were given about what sentences had been handed down, but Xinhua said those who had led the gangs involved would be “resolutely punished in accordance with the law” -- although it added that people who had turned themselves in or provided service to the authorities would be treated more leniently.

Critics of the campaign have noted that the authorities, in their attempt to root out religious influence, have banned local government officials, civil servants and students in Xinjiang from fasting for Ramadan, called on residents in some areas to hand in their passports and, in one village, insisted that shops sell alcohol, to the dissatisfaction of some Muslim residents.

The authorities have also launched campaigns against women covering their faces, and male students growing beards. Monday’s Xinhua news agency report said the authorities had “vigorously promoted modern living in the region,” and had “encouraged Uygur women to abandon the burqa, and long robes, and instead wear their colorful traditional dress ... and reveal their pretty faces.” (Officials have previously said that in some rural areas women have “been forced to cover up their faces and bodies so the extremists won’t harass them, and not because they hold extremist thoughts.”)

Xinhua also said the crackdown had targeted “illegal criminal activities in the field of marriage” -- saying that new centers had been set up in villages to help locals organize weddings and funerals to “sweep away the shadow of the past where religious extremism meant weddings without singing or dancing, where people couldn’t cry at funerals.” And it noted that the government had organized a mass wedding for 300 couples last year, to promote a “modern cultural life style.” It also said that, as a result of its efforts, “young people now have [the] concept of working hard to get rich, and take part in professional training.” And it added that the authorities had sent 200,000 officials to the grassroots level to live with villagers, in an attempt to understand their concerns and help them to start businesses. As a result, it said more “more and more people have seen through religious extremism.”

Experts say Xinjiang has traditionally practiced a relatively liberal form of Islam, and many citizens adapted to modern ways after China embarked on its economic reforms in the 1980s. However, Xinhua’s comments stress the ongoing tension between a recent influx of more fundamentalist ideas and Beijing’s desire to win hearts and minds with the promise of economic development. At least one senior Chinese politician is reported to have criticized overly harsh treatment of Uighurs in other parts of China, after last year’s attack at Kunming station, saying this would play into terrorists’ hands.

Nevertheless, the life sentence handed down to Beijing-based Uighur academic Ilham Tohti late last year, on charges of separatism -- for what his supporters say was simply founding a website to discuss and research social problems in Xinjiang -- has led some academics to warn that the government is not interested in engaging with moderate advocates of Uighur identity, and “could end up radicalizing minority groups already resentful of central government rule.”