From knife and axe attacks to bombings in city centers, tensions between Uighur Muslims and ethnic Hans have in recent months incited a particularly vicious outbreak of violence in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province. Things have gotten to the point where law enforcement authorities in the region have responded by launching a peculiar initiative to clamp down on terrorist and extremist activity: the confiscation and destruction of matches.
The seizure of matches has taken place in several cities around the province. Some 20,000 matchboxes were collected in the city of Changji, and police destroyed another 100,000 in the county of Yarkant. China’s People’s Daily newspaper recently noted that 20,223 matchboxes were set aflame by police in Fukang in order “to prevent terrorists and extremists producing explosives using explosive items such as matches.”
Adding to the confusion, some residents have been handed disposable lighters in exchange for their matches — prompting observers to wonder what matches can do for terror that butane lighters can’t.
Incidents involving fires and bombs have been on the rise in recent months, from the bombing of an open-air market in Urumqi in late May that left 31 dead and 94 injured to an attack on a security checkpoint in Qaraqash county late last month in which two officers were stabbed to death and a room containing three sleeping officers was lit on fire, killing all inside.
All told, in the past year about 200 people have died in attacks that Chinese authorities have blamed on Uighur separatists, whom they accuse of trying to establish a Muslim state. The government is particularly focused on separatist groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the Turkestan Islamic Party, although some experts have noted that these factions have considerably less influence than China’s leaders suggest they do.
Religious restrictions for Uighurs are nothing new. Informants are paid to point out women wearing the hijab and men sporting long beards, Islamic education for children is banned, and children are prohibited from entering mosques during Ramadan. The government also recently banned civil servants and students in the region from fasting for Ramadan, out of an ostensible concern of separating state and religious interests.
Under the circumstances, it stands to reason that Uighurs bristling under this repression would eventually become radicalized purely out of frustration. In the meanwhile, China appears to be doing all it can to keep that segment from striking a match.
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