BEIJING – China marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Xinjiang as an autonomous region on Saturday, as activists said that anti-Chinese sentiment was rising in the Muslim-majority frontier region.
Muslim Uighurs militants, whom Beijing says are terrorists trying to split China, have been struggling for decades for self-determination in the remote northwestern region formally established on Oct. 1, 1955.
China says its system of 'autonomous regions' for ethnic minorities allow them a degree of self-governance but activists say it is a means for Beijing to maintain tight control.
“Ever since the establishment of the autonomous region 50 years ago, Uighur government workers have never had the right to make decisions. They are all made by the Han Chinese,” said Dilxat Raxit, of the World Uighur Congress, a Germany-based group seeking more freedoms for the region they call East Turkestan.
A delegation of Chinese leaders, led by security chief Luo Gan, were on hand in the Xinjiang capital Urumuqi for anniversary celebrations kicked off with a flag-raising and canon shots.
“The unprecedent achievements Xinjiang has made in the past 50 years have proven that only by upholding the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and taking the socialist path can there be … happiness for Xinjiang people from all ethnic groups,” Luo said at the ceremony broadcast live on state television.
But despite the gala song and dance shows aimed at showcasing ethnic unity, Luo also repeated warnings of potential violence.
“We have to further … oppose and crackdown on forces of ethnic separatism, religious extremism and violent terrorism and safeguard social stability and national security,” he said.
Earlier this week Luo told police to “prepare for danger” in Xinjiang, accusing dissidents of plotting to sabotage the celebrations.
The United States also warned American travellers ahead of the anniversary to be vigilant against terrorist attack there.
The Public Security Ministry last month labelled East Turkestan forces the main terrorist threat to China and said more than 260 terrorist acts had been committed in Xinjiang in the past two decades, killing 160 and wounding 440.
Human Rights Watch
But a report this year by Human Rights Watch said China was using its support for the war on terror to justify a wider crackdown on Uighurs that was characterised by arbitrary arrests, closed trials and the use of the death penalty.
Among the most prominent Uighur activists is Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman freed in March and exiled to the United States after serving years in jail on charges of providing state secrets abroad.
The World Uighur Congress said Oct. 1 should be marked as a day of mourning in the region and added that while the group did not support violence, frustration with Chinese rule was growing.
“The Uighur people in East Turkestan are in a very hopeless, desperate and frustrated situation. Continued hopelessness could lead to violence,” the group said in a statement. (Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Guo Shipeng)