“We have entered into a cycle of provocation and repression,” said Jean-Vincent Brisset, director of research at the Institute of International Relations and Strategy in Paris. Brisset says that China is carrying out "ethnocide" against the Muslim Uighurs that the police blame for the attack.
“The Olympics have provided an amplifying effect,” said Brisset. “They’ve stepped up their surveillance measures and have found things.”
In mid-July, two Uighur activists were sentenced to death for links with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which denies Beijing’s accusations of its being a terrorist organisation.
The movement advocates the creation of an independent Islamic state in Xinjiang.
According to Chinese state media, dozens of people suspected of preparing sabotage operations on the Olympic Games have been arrested in Xinjiang.
The attack Monday was on a border police station in Kashgar, the westernmost city in China, where Uighurs are the majority.
Two men drove a lorry into a group of police that were out for a morning jog, according to Xinhua, China’s state press service. They got out of the lorry and threw homemade bombs and attacked the police with knives.
Xinhua reported that at least 16 police were killed and 16 others wounded.
“If that is confirmed,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher with Human Rights Watch, “it will be the deadliest attack ever recorded in Xinjiang.”
The attack comes in a particularly tense climate. Chinese authorities see Xinjiang’s large Muslim Uighur community as one of the principal potential security threats to the Olympic Games in Beijing.
Human rights organisations and Uighurs living in exile say that Beijing exaggerates the threat of violence in Xinjiang and is fomenting discontent in the province by pushing Hans, China’s majority ethnic group, to settle there.
It is difficult to judge the reality of a terrorist threat from the Uighurs. Are the Chinese “bluffing”, as suggested the French historian Thierry Wolton before Monday’s attack. Or is there really an organised Uighur terrorist movement?
According to Brisset, a loose Islamic movement is active in the region and he says Monday’s attack shows the Chinese are right.
“We are faced with people who want to create a certain climate,” said Brisset. “We don’t know how many of them there are, what means they have at their disposal, nor how deeply they have infiltrated the community, but Chinese intelligence services are surely working on this.”
He points out that the Uighurs, traditionally a nomadic people, historically have had little notion of the concept of borders and that the borders in the area, especially in the mountains, are porous.
Kashgar is a crossroads on the old Silk Road, which leads to Kirghizstan in the north and to Pakistan in the south.