BEIJING - The bombing of a civilian market in Xinjiang represents a shift in tactics by militants towards more spectacular attacks, analysts say, to invite a disproportionate response by China and so radicalise the Muslim Uighur homeland.
At least 31 people were killed and more than 90 wounded when assailants threw explosives and ploughed two off-road vehicles through a crowd in the regional capital Urumqi on Thursday. The vast, resource-rich region which was rocked by inter-ethnic riots that killed around 200 people in 2009, is regularly hit by violent flare-ups between Chinese authorities and the mainly Muslim Uighur minority.
But the latest incident was notable for its scale, technique and explicit targeting of civilians, experts told AFP. "In the past in Xinjiang, you had individuals targeting government officials and police," said Michael Clarke, a professor at Griffith University in Brisbane who has authored a book on Beijing's policy in the region. "Now, it seems to have made the shift to a much more indiscriminate attack, the model of a classic terror attack.
"It's a very large attack in the middle of the regional capital," Clarke said, adding that it had "a different level of sophistication" to previous incidents and took place in a neighbourhood mostly populated by Han Chinese, the country's ethnic majority.
Many of those killed and wounded were elderly residents doing their daily shopping. The White House called it a "horrific terrorist attack" which Chinese state broadcaster CCTV seized on as the first time that Washington has used such a label for an incident within Xinjiang's borders. It comes just weeks after a stabbing spree and explosion at an Urumqi railway station left two assailants and a civilian dead and 79 people wounded.
Other high-profile attacks elsewhere in China over the past year have also been blamed by authorities on separatists from Xinjiang. A mass stabbing at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming killed 29 people and wounded 143 in March. Last October, three family members from Xinjiang died when they drove a car into crowds of tourists at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, killing two people before the vehicle burst into flames.
Gardner Bovingdon, a noted Xinjiang scholar at Indiana University, said that Beijing maintains a tight grip on information and little is known about the perpetrators of such acts or their motivations. But the attacks could suggest a "politique du pire" strategy, he said a move by militants to provoke a harsher crackdown in Xinjiang, thus radicalising more Uighurs and making it easier to recruit people to their cause.
"If we think these folks are playing a long game, the calculation might be, 'We commit violence now, the state cracks down, Uighurs become angry and more Uighurs join in,'" said Bovingdon, who has been barred by authorities from visiting Xinjiang for more than a decade. "I think it's the same calculation for Palestinians who do bombings," he added "A small number of people who have committed on the path of violence do things that will come back to affect most of the population."
China's Communist Party has long attributed attacks in Xinjiang to overseas-based terror groups, including the Turkestan Islamic Party and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Most scholars remain sceptical of those claims; however, with some arguing that Beijing exaggerates the threat posed by such groups to justify its hardline measures. Xinjiang's tensions are instead triggered by cultural and religious repression as well as resentment that economic development has mostly benefited an influx of ethnic Han, they say.
China's Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling party and normally, takes a nationalistic tone, acknowledged in an editorialon Friday that "policy errors in the course of history partly contributed to the current plight". In Washington senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Mr Christopher Johnson said that more liberal government policies were hardly likely in the near term.
But he added "Sooner or later, I think they have to kind of come to that reality, because the evidence is just smacking them in the face." Uighur militants in Xinjiang are potentially becoming more influenced by the tactics of other Islamist groups in the wider region, said Clarke, but added "the deeper issue concerns wider Uighur society".
"Why are we seeing a greater radicalisation in fringe elements?" He asked, pointing to the arrest in January of Ilham Tohti, a Uighur academic who has criticised Beijing's policies in Xinjiang but is known as a moderate. Tohti has been charged with separatism, which can carry the death penalty. "He never called for the independence of Xinjiang," Clarke said. "If a moderate voice such as that has been very much quashed, then in a sense there is no avenue to legitimate manifestation of grievances."