China ‘anti-terror’ rallies: thousands of troops on streets of Urumqi

More than 10,000 forces gather in capital of violence-stricken region of Xinjiang for second time in just over a week

Paramilitary policemen board a plane in Urumqi as they head for an anti-terrorism oath-taking rally in Kashgar.
Paramilitary policemen board a plane in Urumqi as they head for an anti-terrorism oath-taking rally in Kashgar. Photograph: China Stringer Network/Reuters

Thousands of troops have poured on to the streets of one of west China’s most important cities for the second time in just over a week, as a senior Communist party leader heralded an “all-out offensive” against terrorism in the violence-stricken region.

More than 10,000 rifle-toting forces gathered at the heart of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, for the latest in a series of spectacular mass “anti-terror rallies”.

Chen Guoquan, the region’s powerful party boss, called on troops to “bury the corpses of terrorists in the vast sea of the people’s war [on terror]”.

Photographs published by local media showed convoys of bulletproof vehicles snaking through Urumqi’s streets and a sea of troops assembled beneath a banner reading: “The people and the army are united as one.”

The government-run Xinjiang Daily urged security forces to “hold aloft their swords and prepare for battle”.

“It is a battle between good and evil, lightness and dark, between progressive and reactionary forces,” the broadsheet said in an editorial.

The newspaper described the parades – held in at least three other regional cities since mid-February – as a way of “mobilising the armed forces to fight against … enemies of the people”.

Passenger planes packed with armed troops were reported to have been dispatched to three cities in southern Xinjiang – Hotan, Kashgar and Aksu – which authorities hailed the frontline of their war on terror.

Xinjiang has experienced repeated outbreaks of killing in recent years, including an explosion of ethnic rioting in 2009 in which at least 197 people died and 1,700 were injured.

Beijing blames the bloodshed on Islamic extremists but experts believe it is also driven by the harshness with which authorities treat Xinjiang’s native Uighur ethnic minority.

At least two deadly incidents have been reported since December ending what had appeared to be a period of relative calm.

Nevertheless, James Leibold, a Xinjiang expert from La Trobe University in Australia, said he had been surprised by the authorities’ “disproportional” show of force.

“It’s safe to say that we haven’t seen this level of public sabre-rattling since the aftermath of the 2009 riots.

“The two recent attacks were small, minor incidents involving unsophisticated ‘cold weapons’ – knives – that seem to indicate little planning and coordination. There might be something going on behind the scenes in terms of the security situation in Xinjiang but I suspect it’s more a case of political posturing.”

China is gearing up for a crucial and highly sensitive political year with the Communist party’s 19th congress – the midpoint of President Xi Jinping’s 10-year term in power – scheduled for the autumn.

A lesser but nonetheless key political event – the annual “two sessions” summit – kicks off in Beijing on Friday.

Leibold said he sensed Xinjiang’s party chief was staging the rallies, which have not been widely reported in China’s English-language press, for a domestic audience.

“Not only for the residents of Xinjiang – Han and Uighur alike – but also for the political bosses back in Beijing. It’s a form of political theatre of the highest order [that says]: the party is in firm control in Xinjiang and those who seek to resist will be crushed.”

Residents quoted by Xinjiang’s party controlled media gave the events a predictable thumbs up.

“Our country is so great,” a spectator named as Azat Jusuf told the Xinjiang Daily.

Paraphrasing a 2014 speech by President Xi, he added: “Terrorists are little more than rats scurrying across the street and they must be punished.”

Additional reporting by Wang Zhen

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