Bombs expose unrest in Muslim China

Xinjiang attacks raise security fears in Peking, as Hong Kong receives fleeting visit from another minister

Indiscriminate bombings in the capital of China's far western Muslim Xinjiang province just hours after Deng Xiaoping's memorial ceremony have exposed the gaps in the country's powerful security apparatus. Officials confirmed yesterday that three bombs placed on public buses in the provincial capital of Urumqi on Tuesday had killed at least four people and injured 60. The bombs were assumed to be the work of separatist forces who want an independent Muslim state.

The timing of the blasts, following the senior communist party leadership's final farewell to Deng in the Great Hall of the People, suggests that the public security bureau's intelligence and preventive capability in Xinjiang is badly stretched. Policing in Xinjiang had already been stepped up after anti-Chinese riots in early February in Yining city, across the border from Kazakhstan, in which at least 10 people, possibly many more, were killed and more than 100 injured when Chinese soldiers opened fire on demonstrators. Yesterday, a heavy police presence was reported on the streets of Urumqi, checking bags and packages. "People are full of fear, and the city is on high alert," said a local television station official. Tuesday's bombs were placed on commuter buses in Urumqi, the provincial headquarters for the Han Chinese government which administers Xinjiang and its ethnic Muslim Uighur population. A fourth bomb was identified before it detonated.

Xinjiang's vast territory accounts for one-sixth of China's total land mass but is home to just 16 million inhabitants. Resistance to Peking rule goes back a long time. An independent East Turkistan was declared in Yining in 1944 and lasted until 1949 when the leadership was killed when their airplane crashed mysteriously on its return from a meeting with Mao Tse-tung in Peking. Ethnic unrest in Xinjiang has since been a running sore for the Peking government. Over the past year, terrorist activity by Muslim separatists has stepped up, repeatedly challenging Peking's claim to have control of its westernmost province. Western analysts believe that the terrorists represent a minority of public opinion; Chinese rule in Xinjiang is not under threat but the bombing of civilian targets poses a serious public-order problem for Peking.

Since 1949, the Chinese government has sought to strengthen its hold on the region by encouraging a big influx of Han Chinese. These days some 38 per cent of the province's population is Han Chinese compared with 47 per cent Muslim Uighur. This has only inflamed nationalist feeling, and Uighurs complain that Xinjiang has been exploited for its large oil reserves without benefiting the local people.

Peking, seeing the emergence of the newly independent Muslim central Soviet republics, is terrified of cross-border links with Uighur nationalists in the newly independent former Soviet Central Asia republics. This may account for the crackdown on alleged separatist activity over the past year.

Last April, it was reported that 1,700 suspected "terrorists, separatists and criminals" had been arrested in Xinjiang as part of an anti-crime crackdown. The situation was difficult to verify, given the Chinese authorities' habit of labelling any criminals in ethnically volatile areas as "splittists". In May, in Kuqa town, nine alleged Muslim separatists were killed in a shootout with police, and accused of "bombings, murders and other violent terrorist activities". Meanwhile, a number of pro-Peking religious and government Uighur figures were reported murdered.

Reliable information aboutXinjiang is difficult to obtain because foreigners' access is restricted. Xinjiang is sensitive because it is the site of China's former nuclear test site and has many forced labour camps.

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