China: Xi Jinping wants ‘Great Wall of Steel’ in violence-hit Xinjiang
The Guardian, 13 March 2017
By Tom Phillips — Chinese president Xi Jinping has urged security forces to erect a “Great Wall of Steel” around the violence-hit western region of Xinjiang after an apparent spike in bloodletting that authorities blame on Islamic extremists and separatists.
Xi issued the traditional military rallying call on Friday, during a session of the national people’s congress, China’s annual rubber-stamp parliament, in Beijing.
China’s paramount leader called on officials to act to bring “lasting peace and stability” to the landlocked border region, which has a bloody history of ethnic violence and, more recently, terrorist attacks.
“Maintaining stability in Xinjiang is a political responsibility,” official news agency Xinhua paraphrased Xi as saying.
Xi’s comments follow a series of massive “anti-terror” rallies in Xinjiang, which is home to the Turkic-speaking and largely Muslim Uighur minority as well as a growing number of Han Chinese immigrants.
Tens of thousands of heavily armed troops have poured onto the streets there in recent weeks, vowing to wage a “people’s war on terror” against militants. At one recent show of force the regional Communist party chief urged troops to “bury the corpses of terrorists in the vast sea of the people’s war”.
Xinjiang has for decades been blighted by outbreaks of vicious ethnic violence, a process experts believe has been exacerbated by the government’s poor treatment of Uighurs, which includes draconian religious restrictions and social and economic discrimination.
However, after a succession of deadly incidents between 2009 and 2014 – including an explosion of deadly inter-ethnic rioting and several Xinjiang-linked attacks on civilians – the region appeared to be enjoying a period of relative tranquility.
That apparent calm was shattered in late December, when security forces shot four militants who allegedly attempted to blow up a Communist party building in southern Xinjiang. Three more alleged terrorists were shot last month after reportedly setting upon civilians with machetes.
In early March the Iraqi-arm of Isis released a gory online propaganda video in which a Uighur-speaking recruit vowed to spill the blood of “evil Chinese communist infidel lackeys”.
Experts are unsure what has inspired the increasingly tough talk coming out of Xinjiang but James Leibold, a specialist from Australia’s La Trobe University, said politics was one likely explanation. Leibold said the region’s hard-line party boss, Chen Quanguo, who was recently posted to Xinjiang from Tibet, appeared to be angling for promotion to China’s top decision-making body later this year.
“Chen wants and expects a Politburo seat and cannot afford to look soft on ‘terror’ and weiwen [stability maintenance] work, so he is going to extremes to impress his political bosses back in Beijing,” he said.
Recent weeks have seen repeated hints that Xinjiang, already the setting for an intense security crackdown, is now entering a period of even tighter control. Last month it emerged that security officials had ordered residents to install GPS tracking devices in their vehicles to allow authorities to permanently monitor their movements.
This week it was reported that stiff new anti-extremism regulations were being prepared, handing authorities special powers to deal with those deemed a terror threat, including the ability to hold “extremist leaders” in solitary confinement.
One senior official told the Global Times newspaper that in applying the new rules the government needed “to distinguish between ethnic habits and extremist practices”.