Xayar, an oasis town on the frontline of China’s homegrown “war on terror”, has the feel of a combat zone. Armed groups patrol the streets and every major building is protected by high walls and barbed wire.
Most of Xayar’s residents are Turkic-speaking members of the Muslim Uighur minority who before China’s 1949 communist revolution comprised more than 90 per cent of the population of the northwestern “autonomous region” of Xinjiang.
But after decades of state-directed immigration by Han Chinese, Uighurs now account for only about 40 per cent of Xinjiang’s 22m population. The region, which makes up about a sixth of China’s territory, is also autonomous in name only, with Han officials dominating the territory’s government and security apparatus.
“We hate the Han government because society is so unfair here,” says one Xayar resident who asked not to be named. “They are the big bosses of everything and have all the opportunities, while we Uighurs are denied even basic rights.”
The young man, whose face and head bear scars from a street brawl with Han Chinese settlers, fears what may happen to him were he to be labelled a “separatist”. “If I curse the communist party in front of a Han person or if I start complaining that this is our land and they are occupiers, then I can be locked up as an extremist, no questions asked.”
Such resentment lies behind a recent upsurge in ethnic riots, and terrorist attacks. Late last month two suicide bombers attacked Han railway passengers with knives before detonating explosives at a train station in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, killing themselves and one person, and injuring 79 others.
Uighur resentment has periodically boiled over into riots and bombings over the years but the attack on the train station was the first bombing in Urumqi in 17 years and the first suicide bombing in the city ever. Pre-meditated suicide attacks by Uighurs have been very rare until recently.
The Urumqi attack came less than two months after the brutal slaying of 29 people at another station, 4,000km away at Kunming in Yunnan, by a group of at least eight knife-wielding Uighur attackers, an incident that turned what had been a low-intensity conflict with police and soldiers in Xinjiang into a deliberate assault on civilians in China’s Han heartland.
“There has been a shift over the past couple of years from targeting symbols of the party and state in Xinjiang – police stations and government buildings – to targeting people to create terror,” says James Leibold, a Sinologist at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.
In Xayar, residents will only whisper the name of Sedirdin Sawut, the 39-year-old who was identified by the government as one of the two Urumqi attackers. That attack appeared timed to coincide with a four-day visit to the region by President Xi Jinping.
Police are still searching for at least five of Mr Sawut’s relatives including his wife and father, who have all gone missing and may have been involved, according to state media, as well as two alleged bomb-makers from Xayar.
Locals say Mr Sawut moved to Urumqi several years ago, where they believe he was radicalised by extremists who frequently target non-Chinese-speaking Uighurs from the countryside. Such migrants often struggle to find good jobs, especially as economic growth slows to as little as 4 per cent in large industrial areas to the east that have traditionally attracted large numbers of Uighurs.
Though their town is perched on the rim of the energy-rich Tarim basin, residents of Xayar and other nearby settlements have been left behind by the region’s oil and gas boom.
“Life is very hard in poor, ecologically fragile towns in Xinjiang,” says Jiang Zhaoyong, a Beijing-based expert on the region. “Many people leave to work as labourers or peddlers in large Chinese cities, but even these opportunities are fewer and fewer. It is not easy for them to make money.”
During his trip to Xinjiang, Mr Xi acknowledged the economic predicament faced by many Uighurs.
“Development should benefit the people, the local area and ethnic unity,” the official Xinhua news agency said in a typical dispatch that hyped the aid given to the region by Beijing and downplayed the Urumqi attack. “Promoting employment of minorities is vital to people’s livelihood and stability?.?.?.?However, exploitation of [Xinjiang’s] resources has enriched large enterprises and entrepreneurs rather than the local area and its people.”
Nevertheless, the president’s Xinjiang tour remained firmly focused on security and counter-terrorism as he paid high-profile visits to military and police units across the region. In the wake of the train station attack, which took place on the day he left Urumqi, Mr Xi pledged to “resolutely suppress” terrorism in the region.
“Xi is afraid to look soft on public security issues,” says Mr Leibold. “His visit was very carefully orchestrated and had many elements, but certainly it led with security. I think he wants to calm the nerves of a slightly jittery Han population.”
Chinese officials often claim Uighur terrorists have been helped by “outside forces” from countries bordering Xinjiang, including Afghanistan and Pakistan where Uighurs have been fighting alongside the Taliban.
But apart from a few Pakistani gem merchants in Xayar, residents say there is no evidence of an expanding foreign presence, adding that locals are effectively stopped from getting within 100km of the Afghan or Pakistani borders by -Chinese military checkpoints.
And, while everything about Xayar and nearby towns feels thoroughly -Muslim, religion is very tightly -controlled. Locals are woken not by the traditional dawn call to prayer, which is forbidden throughout -Xinjiang, but rather by the sound of Han paramilitary troops practising their morning drills.
Additional reporting by Wan Li
澳大利亚墨尔本拉筹伯大学(La Trobe University)汉学家詹姆斯?雷柏德(James Leibold)表示：“过去几年，新疆恐怖主义活动的目标，已从象征着共产党以及中国政府的警察局和政府大楼转向平民，以制造恐慌。”