By Carol Huang ,AFP
HOTAN, China — China has blamed a fiery attack in Tiananmen Square on “terrorists” from Xinjiang backed by international militants, but residents say that rather than jihadism, violence is driven by cultural repression, corruption and police abuses. The dusty city of Hotan on the edge of the Taklamakan desert is 3,300 kilometers (more than 2,000 miles) and a world away from Beijing’s Forbidden City, the symbolic heart of Chinese power. Armed security personnel in camouflage and police vans patrol the streets in the city whose two million strong population is 96 percent Uyghur, a mainly Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in Xinjiang.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV has said that the three people who carried out the Tiananmen attack, which saw their vehicle barrel into crowds and burst into flames, and five others detained in connection, were all from Hotan. But residents reject the accusation that the deadly Tiananmen incident — the first attributed to Uyghurs outside the far western region — and a series of clashes inside Xinjiang this year are the result of terrorism. “Uyghurs are angry that women are not allowed to cover their faces or that they must bribe government officials to get things done,” said a 30-year-old doctor. Like other interviewees he asked not to be named for fear of repercussions from discussing the sensitive topic. “They don’t go overseas” for terrorism training, he told AFP. “The problem is they are unhappy with officials in Hotan. The governance is bad and that’s why these idiots do what they do — make trouble, turn to violence.” Several said they did not know if Islamic extremism or other factors motivated the Tiananmen attack, in which police said a man, his wife and his mother crashed into crowds on the square, killing two tourists, before setting their car on fire and dying in the blaze. One pointed to the amateur nature of attacks as evidence the perpetrators could not have been organized or trained. Security experts have also questioned Beijing’s allegations that a militant group with cross-border links is actively fighting for an independent Xinjiang, while overseas rights groups accuse China of exaggerating the global jihad threat to justify oppressive measures.
Beijing says all countries are justified in cracking down on terrorism and insists it has promoted economic growth in the relatively less-developed region.
But in Hotan, Uyghurs cite religious restrictions as a major grievance, particularly an official campaign to stop the Muslim practice of women covering their faces. “This is where problems arise. They don’t respect our ethnic traditions,” said one resident, adding: “The people they call terrorists are just people who are uncivilized and uneducated … Anywhere you go you will find good guys and bad guys.” In Kashgar, 500 kilometers from Hotan, several residents said a clash with police that left 21 people dead in April erupted after a local official tried to force a woman to remove her veil.