— Armed with only knives, the assailants struck at the coal mine in the dead of night, first killing the security guards and then setting upon the miners as they slept in their dormitory beds. Before the Sept. 18 rampage was over, more than 50 people were dead, at least five of them police officers, and dozens more had been wounded, according to victims’ relatives and residents.
Most of the victims were Han Chinese who had been lured to this desolate corner of the far west Xinjiang region
by the prospect of steady work and decent pay.
The wanted posters displayed later in Baicheng suggest the attackers were ethnic Uighurs, all of whom apparently escaped into the craggy foothills of the Tianshan Mountains, not far from China
’s border with Kyrgyzstan
Even as Baicheng County
remains in a state of siege, with an enormous manhunt underway, the Chinese news media has yet to report on the massacre, and local officials, when asked about it, have denied that it even took place.
But the attack on the Sogan coal mine appears to be one of the deadliest acts of violence in Xinjiang in recent years, underscoring the challenges that Beijing
faces as it tries to maintain order in a region nearly as large as Alaska
Details of the massacre were first published last month by Radio Free Asia, a news service financed by the United States
government and blocked by the Chinese government.
The coal mine attack occurred during national celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and government officials here have been trying to keep news of the killings from seeping beyond the constellation of coal mines and dusky towns that fleck rural Baicheng County.
Last week, the county seat was bristling with heavily armed police officers and was subject to a nighttime curfew. At main intersections, officers huddled behind sandbags; at Baicheng County Hospital, they guarded the rooms of the half-dozen injured mine workers yet to be discharged.
A middle school in nearby Tirek Township has been converted into a staging area, and residents say that a helicopter and drones have been flying over the deeply carved ravines that are thought to be sheltering the killers.
Despite the siege atmosphere, many Baicheng residents said they knew little about what had happened at the coal mine. “We don’t know anything, and we feel safer if it stays that way,” the desk clerk of a local hotel said with a shrug and a smile.
Lingering across from her in the lobby was a group of special forces officers, intimidating with their black uniforms and hard expressions. They had been called from other parts of China, and another hotel clerk suggested that they had replaced local officers whose loyalties could not be entirely trusted.
“We have many Uighur police in Baicheng, and sometimes they might just cut people some slack if they are of the same ethnicity,” said the clerk, Xiong Zhaoxia, 27, a native of southwest Sichuan Province
who moved here as a child. “Just think about it,” she added, “if I go back to my hometown, the people there will surely help me hide.”
Even if untrue, her sentiments speak volumes about the mistrust between the Han Chinese and the Uighurs. The two ethnic groups have little in common, and they often cannot speak the same language, especially in rural areas.
The violence has continued despite a heavy security crackdown and billions of dollars in government spending that aim to quell discontent among the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority, most of them Muslim, whose share of the population in Xinjiang has been shrinking in the face of Han migration.
The resentment among Uighurs, palpable beneath the taut smiles and platitudes about ethnic unity, is fueled by widespread poverty, government restrictions on religious activities and a belief that Han outsiders benefit disproportionately from Xinjiang’s plentiful natural resources, which include 40 percent of the nation’s coal deposits and a quarter of its oil reserves.
“Sometimes when I look around me and see so many Han, I feel like I am a stranger in my own homeland,” said a Uighur engineer in Aksu, the prefectural capital, which was once predominantly Uighur but whose population is now half Han.
Local officials, mindful of how social unrest can hobble careers, may be worried about angering higher-ups in Beijing. But one Communist Party official interviewed by Radio Free Asia provided another reason for the media blackout: “We are controlling information about the incident so strictly, lest we frighten Han migrants in Aksu,” he said.
A man who answered the telephone at the Baicheng government’s offices hung up when asked about what had happened at the mine. Ma Yanfeng, an official charged with managing foreign visitors to Aksu, said he knew nothing about the attack, but expressed no evident concern when told the grisly details. “I think you’ll find that the different ethnic groups in Aksu live together in absolute harmony,” he said, spreading his arms wide for effect.
Although much of the violence in Xinjiang goes unreported by the Chinese news media, the authorities often find it hard to conceal clashes with large death tolls, or those that provoke serious civil unrest. Those include a clash in the nearby city of Kashgar
in June that left as many as 28 people dead, and a protest near Aksu last year that followed the fatal shooting of a Uighur teenager, who was reportedly gunned down after he failed to stop at a police checkpoint.
The government invariably blames Muslim religious extremists for the violence, though analysts outside China say many attacks have little to do with jihadist ideology. “The triggers are often locally embedded, whether it be reprisal for a woman who’s been publicly unveiled, and her family shamed, or people striking back after a relative has been detained by police,” said James Leibold, a professor of Asian studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia
, who is an expert on Xinjiang.
Radio Free Asia, citing a government official in Baicheng, said the attackers might have been seeking vengeance for what the official described as a coercive campaign aimed at combating religious extremism. The official said the 17 suspects being sought were members of three Uighur families who had been singled for flouting regulations that, among other prohibitions, bar women from veiling their faces.
Residents said they saw faces of several young women on wanted posters at Baicheng’s main market. The posters were later removed; it is not known why.
At the county hospital, relatives of the injured workers were reluctant to talk to a reporter, but one man, who gave his surname, Liu, said the government was paying the medical bills for his brother-in-law, a native of Sichuan whose hand was slashed during the attack.
The doctors, too, were skittish about discussing the episode or an attack in February that left 17 people dead, including four police officers and four bystanders struck by police gunfire. The hospital walls had been given over to notices barring patients or their relatives from praying inside the building, and handwritten essays by employees condemning the recent violence with propagandistic flourishes.
Outside on Jiefang Lu, or Liberation Street, the town’s main commercial thoroughfare, lampposts were festooned with posters hailing Xinjiang’s 60th anniversary and placards condemning terrorism. One billboard featured a multiethnic clutch of citizens, cartoonish figures armed with shovels and brooms, attacking rats. “Fellow ethnicities unite and jointly combat violent terrorists,” it said.
It was midday, but many storefronts along the street were shuttered. Ms. Xiong, the hotel clerk, said many shop owners had left over the past year or so, joining an exodus of Han migrants who departed after some of Baicheng’s cement plants, steel factories and coal mines closed down, victims of China’s slowing economy.
“Now, with this incident, I think the companies and businessmen will never come back,” she said.