On the morning of the last day of Ramadan, people armed with knives and axes attacked or injured dozens of civilians in Xinjiang before being shot dead by police, according to Chinese state media.
A brief Xinhua report released today said the assailants had descended on a government building in Shache county on July 28, before moving onto nearby streets where they attacked passers-by as well as smashed and set cars on fire. The report said “dozens” of Han Chinese and Uighur residents had been killed. “This was a serious, violent terrorist attack that was organized, premeditated and carefully planned,” the news agency said.
Increasing violence in Xinjiang, where over 200 people have died in similar attacks over the past year, is in large part because of religious and ethnic tensions—the native Uighur population complain that Beijing suppresses their religious and cultural freedoms. But this week’s violence also underlines another potential source of friction: the belief that jobs, and money poured into the region by the central government have gone to Han Chinese immigrants and bypassed local Uighurs.
Shache county, also known as Yarkant, home to about 840,000 people in southwest Xinjiang, is one of the poorest counties in China—and exactly the kind of area that president Xi Jinping has promised to bring wealth and alleviate poverty. Over the past few years, China has made economic development in the resource-rich region a priority, by expanding a local textile industry, building highways, and encouraging local and foreign banks to open there.
Yet per capita income for farmers and herdsmen in Shache, formerly a thriving trade stop and oasis along the ancient Silk Road known for its almonds and walnuts, was a mere 3,800 yuan ($614) in 2012, compared to the national average of 7,917 yuan that year. In a ranking of 30 poverty stricken counties in Xinjiang by researchers at the University of Queensland, Shache ranked last in terms of “survival support,” agricultural efficiency and the amount of water and land available, as well as second to last in social support, and third from last in terms of education resources and overall “knowledge support.”
Exactly why or who the assailants were may not become clear for a while, if ever. Xinhua already withheld news of the attack for over a day—officials keep a tight grip on news coming out of the region and restrict non-state or foreign media from reporting freely in Xinjiang. In May, attackers drove vehicles with homemade explosives into a marketplace in Urumqi, killing 43. And in March, 29 people at a train station in Kunming were stabbed to death in an attack that authorities have said was the doing of Uighur separatists.
Cathy Sizhao Yi contributed additional reporting.