Chinese officials in the western region of Xinjiang, an area troubled by occasional acts of ethnic violence and domestic terrorism, ordered paramilitary units and police officers to attend large rallies in the past week as a show of force.
The rallies were the biggest in recent years, if statistics cited by official websites are accurate.
About 10,000 police officers and members of the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force responsible for domestic security, attended a rally on Saturday in a central square in Urumqi, the regional capital, according to a report on the Xinjiang government’s official website. Hundreds of police vans and other official vehicles also filled the square.
Similar rallies took place in Khotan on Thursday and in Kashgar on Friday, both oasis towns with predominantly Uighur populations along the old Silk Road.
According to an official news report, the rallies had a common theme, “Showing power to intimidate, lining up the forces.”
Xinjiang, which abuts Central Asia, is one of the largest regions in China. Parts of it are home to ethnic Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people who mostly practice Sunni Islam. At least privately, many Uighurs criticize the rule of the ethnic Han, the dominant group in China.
Bursts of violence have occurred in recent years. The most startling unfolded in Urumqi in 2009, when ethnic rioting led to about 200 deaths. The government said most of the victims were ethnic Han. Uighurs and international human rights groups criticized an intense security crackdown that followed.
In 2013 and 2014, Chinese state-run news organizations reported on many attacks in Xinjiang, some involving groups of people in Uighur towns or neighborhoods who laid siege to police stations with knives, according to the news organizations. Chinese officials accused the attackers of being terrorists or religious extremists with ties to international jihadists, but they offered no evidence of organized terrorism groups at work in Xinjiang.
Since then, open conflict in the region has ebbed, although violence occasionally flares.
Last year, Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region, where ethnic tensions are also a chronic problem, was appointed to be the party chief of Xinjiang. His predecessor in Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, was seen by some central government officials as being too lenient. Mr. Chen, an ethnic Han known for tough policies in Tibet, has tried to project an uncompromising image in Xinjiang.
James Leibold, a scholar of Xinjiang and China’s ethnic policies at La Trobe University in Australia, said the recent rallies seemed disproportional to the current threat level.
“The new regime of Chen Quanguo not only wants to look tough on terror in the eyes of the Han and Uighur population of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, but also wants to send a message back to Zhongnanhai that his regime is going to take a more hard-line stance on terror when compared to his predecessor Zhang Chunxian,” Professor Leibold said. Zhongnanhai is the name of the Communist Party’s leadership compound in central Beijing.
Mr. Leibold said Mr. Chen was “clearly angling for a Politburo seat at the 19th Party Congress,” an important political meeting that is expected to take place in Beijing in the fall. Mr. Leibold, who has recently written on security forces in Xinjiang, said his research showed that the Xinjiang government had recruited more than 30,000 new police officers to be present at streetside mobile stations since Mr. Chen took power last year.
Under Mr. Chen, officials held several rallies earlier this winter, as they did in the years of Mr. Zhang. But there were no signs indicating that any of those rallies under Mr. Chen or Mr. Zhang were attended by as many as 10,000 security officers.
Vanessa Piao contributed research.
(C) 2017 The New York Times