Attackers wielding knives launched an assault on police and government buildings in the remote northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang on Wednesday morning, according to state media, which reported that at least 27 people died, including 10 of the attackers.
The tightly-controlled region is a flashpoint for ethnic tension, where 200 people died in 2009 during violence between the local Muslim Uighur population and the government, made up mostly of ethnic Han Chinese.
The cause of Wednesday’s violence is unknown, but the BBC reports that it may have started with a local family who had a long standing dispute with officials over whether or not Uighur men should cut their beards and women wear veils. China also jailed 19 Uighurs last week for “for promoting racial hatred and religious extremism online.”
Getting accurate information out of Xinjiang can be difficult, and no independent news outfit had its reporters on the scene, making confirmation impossible. In a similar violent clash in April that left 21 dead, including 15 police officers and local officials, authorities described the dead assailants as “terrorists.” Other sources suggested that the violence may have started after police shot a Uighur youth while searching a house.
A senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch told the Guardian after April’s violence that “every time an incident has been investigated, it brings up elements that challenge profoundly the version put out by authorities.” Accepting that there are some criminal gangs in Xinjiang capable of violence, he said that “anything that is outside of state-controlled religion is viewed by the Chinese government as illegal religious activity—and anything viewed as illegal religious activity is in turn associated with terrorism.”
In Wednesday’s case, state media called the violence “riots,” referring to eight civilians among the dead. Xinjiang’s ethnic violence may be less well known than the self-immolating monks in Tibet, but it is no less of a headache for Beijing.