China’s relations with Muslim Uighurs worsen as tensions rise after attacks

Beijing — After a string of ­brazen attacks attributed to ­Islamist extremists, Chinese ­authorities have ratcheted up surveillance of and restrictions on Muslim Uighurs as their relations with the large minority population continue to deteriorate.

In the past week, Chinese ­authorities have clashed with residents of the restive western province of Xinjiang, sentenced others to prison and announced new measures that critics say amount to religious and ethnic persecution.

Police fatally shot one person and captured another Thursday in an area of Xinjiang that has seen some of the worst clashes, according to state media. In a statement distributed by the state-controlled Xinhua News Agency, police said that during a police stop, suspects attacked an officer and threw explosive devices at a patrol car.

Meanwhile, state media in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar said five people have been sentenced to prison for inciting separatism and endangering state security. As their sentences were announced, ranging from seven to 15 years, more than 300 local party members and students applauded, state media said.

Authorities said the five who were found guilty had purchased data flash cards containing extremist or jihadist material and disseminated them electronically. The five were also accused of setting up illegal groups to teach fundamentalist religious thought to youths.

For years, many Uighurs and other, smaller Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have agitated against China’s authoritarian government. Their protests are a reaction, Uighur groups say, to ­oppressive official policies, ­including religious restrictions and widespread discrimination.

The government has long denied oppressing Uighurs or any other ethnic group and has blamed terrorist acts on separatist Muslims who want to make Xinjiang an independent state.

Ethnic rioting and clashes in Xinjiang reached a peak in 2009, resulting in roughly 200 deaths and triggering a crackdown by local authorities. Renewed protests last year also turned violent and are thought to have claimed more than 100 lives.

Recent attacks have led to heightened vigilance throughout Xinjiang. Kashgar, for example, has been described in recent days by local media as a city on lockdown. According to the Xinjiang Daily News, Communist Party members and local companies, schools and community groups have been recruited to act as 24-hour “security watchers,” backing up round-the-clock police surveillance.

In southern Xinjiang’s Aksu prefecture, where most residents are Uighur, Chinese authorities are trying monetary rewards to persuade residents to inform on each other. A notice dated April 16 that was posted on the official Web site of Aksu’s Shayar County listed at least 36 types of useful information and offered rewards of between $8 and $8,000.

The notice appears to have been removed since it was reported by some Chinese and foreign media. According to a screen shot provided by the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, authorities offered rewards for informing on activities such as prayer in public places; disputes between members of ethnic minorities and Han Chinese; and people with bizarre dress or long beards, as well as foreigners.

Aksu is one of Xinjiang’s most heavily guarded areas and has seen many clashes in the past. In February, about a dozen people armed with knives and explosive devices reportedly attacked police on patrol. Eight were fatally shot by police and three others killed in the suicide bombing, state media reported. A month earlier, six people were shot when they attacked a local police station.

“The Chinese authorities’ intensified drive to repress religious practice and belief among Uyghurs has led to a marked decline for religious freedom in the past year,” said Uyghur ­Human Rights Project director Alim Seytoff.

By conflating extremism and terrorism with regular Uighur customs such as wearing long beards and with religious practices such as praying, the government has decided that “nearly every Uighur is complicit in ‘illegal religious activity’ and forces Uighur believers to abandon their faith in order to avoid state punishment,” Seytoff said.

Some experts on Chinese ­terrorism disagree, however, saying that such measures are not targeting religion but responding, of necessity, to a growing terrorist threat. Li Wei, director of the anti-terrorism center at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said that many countries encourage their residents to report suspicious ­activities.

“We should not mix terrorism with issues of ethnicity and religion,” Li said. “That’s what terrorists want.”

The heightened tensions come after an explosion and attack at a train station in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, last week at the end of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the region. The attack killed three and injured at least 79.

On Tuesday, six people were injured in a knife attack at the Guangzhou railway station in the southern province of Guangdong. Initial witness reports on Chinese social media described several men in white hats similar to those traditionally worn by Muslims, but local authorities have not identified the attackers.

In March, an attack by knife-wielding assailants at a train station in southern China left 33 people dead and more than 100 injured.

In Xinjiang last week, Xi urged authorities to respond to the ­recent attacks with increased pressure, saying Chinese must “make terrorists become like rats scurrying across a street, with everybody shouting, ‘Beat them!’ ” state media reported.

Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.