As many as 700 persons may have been killed in political violence that rocked northwestern China’s Xinjiang region from 2013-2014, with ethnic Uyghurs three times as likely as Han Chinese to have lost their lives in clashes, according to a report released Tuesday by the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP).
Uyghur majority areas in the southern prefectures of Xinjiang were most heavily affected by the violence, said the report, titled “Legitimizing Repression: China’s ‘War on Terror’ Under Xi Jinping and State Policy in East Turkestan.”
Many Uyghurs living in China and in exile refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan, as the region came under final control by China only following two short-lived East Turkestan republics in the 1930s and 1940s.
Chinese state-controlled media reported less than a third of the clashes that took place in the reporting period, and described more than two-thirds of the 37 incidents it did report on as “terrorist” events, UHRP said in its report.
“Chinese state media underreporting of violence attempts to maintain the fiction that [Beijing’s] policies in the region are working,” UHRP director Alim Seytoff said in a statement Tuesday.
“However, China also wants to convince the international community that it faces an ‘overseas inspired terror threat’ to deflect criticism for its domestic repressive policies,” Seytoff said. Seytoff is a former employee of Radio Free Asia.
The Xinjiang region, home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has recently seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead, and which China has blamed on Islamic insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
Rights groups accuse Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in the region, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic religious practice, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
In its report, UHRP identified a range of 656-715 individuals who were killed in ethnic clashes in Xinjiang from 2013-2014, with the number of those who lost their lives in 2014 approximately double the number of those killed the year before.
“Although these numbers should not be considered definitive, as the Chinese government tightly controls information in East Turkestan, they are indicative of deterioration in security conditions since Xi Jinping became Chinese president in early 2013,” UHRP said.
In what UHRP called “a troubling number of incidents” during the reporting period, Chinese security forces killed everyone they later identified as a “perpetrator,” suggesting that lethal force may now be a predictable police response to violent clashes, the report said.
“In addition, a number of incidents recorded by UHRP appear to have been provoked [emphasis in the original] by heavy-handed, or at best insensitive, policing,” UHRP said.
Through its actions in Xinjiang, “China has effectively silenced peaceful Uyghur dissenters to repressive Chinese policies,” UHRP said in its report.
“As a result, Uyghurs have been left with no explicit voice to change policy at a time of inequitable political, economic, social and cultural transformation in the region,” the report said.