The vehicles raced toward the market an hour after sunrise, one from the north and another from the south, mowing over pedestrians and tossing explosives. One of the vehicles itself then exploded.
In moments, 31 were dead and 90 injured as the latest in a string of deadly terror attacks again stained streets with blood in Urumqi, the capital of China’s far western Xinjiang region, which is home to the country’s ethnic Uighur population.
Photos circulated on the Internet showed bodies strewn on a road amid shattered lettuce and potatoes, as black smoke poured out of a large fire. Witnesses described the two vehicles as bearing black flags inscribed with Uighur script, and said they heard a dozen blasts.
“I was so scared and ran away. But then there was another blast in front of me,” a man named Wang told local media. “I’m 60 years old, and have never been so scared.”
The blast was met by a pledge of swift and harsh response by president Xi Jinping, who vowed increased patrols, heightened “security control” and severe punishment for those responsible. But even as Chinese authorities sought to regain control, two Urumqi-bound aircraft were diverted to other airports, after a passenger reported that his travelling companion was planning to blow up an airplane.
Later in the day, a train station in Lanzhou, a city in China’s central northwest, was shut down after reports that a bomb was detected there. Though nothing was found, the shutdown illustrated the sense of fear that has spread through China in recent months.
The Urumqi bombing follows a recent rash of terror acts on Chinese soil that have rapidly grown in severity, sophistication and geographic reach.
Last October, a car barrelled through pedestrians and exploded at Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of the Chinese state, leaving five dead. In March, masked attackers wielding machete-like knives killed 29 at a train station in Kunming deep in the country’s south. On May 1, a knife-and-bomb attack killed three at an Urumqi train station during a visit to the region by Mr. Xi. A week later, another knife attack wounded six at the railway station in Guangzhou in south-eastern China.
The rise in attacks, most blamed by China on extremist separatists from Xinjiang’s Muslim Uighur population, has created widespread national angst — with some schools now refusing to send students on trains — and underscored Beijing’s struggles to detect and contain anger in the region.
Local grievances are morphing into a more pernicious kind of “al Qaeda narrative” involving a global struggle against injustice, said Greg Barton, a professor at Monash University in Melbourne who has studied radical development among extremists. “It’s bad news for China. There’s no quick and easy answer to this.”
The difficulty for Chinese leadership lies in fighting back without employing such draconian measures that residents feel compelled to join the terrorist cause. “The instinct for any government — China is not on its own on this — is to crack down very harshly,” Mr. Barton said. A more effective, though more complex, response is one that wins support from local communities, he said.
China has so far erred on the side of harsh measures.
Earlier this month, Meng Jianzhu, a member of the Communist Party Politburo, called on the country to “resolutely beat the terrorists’ arrogant brazenness.” Mr. Xi, in his recent visit to Xinjiang, said China must “make terrorists become like rats scurrying across a street, with everybody shouting 'beat them!’”
The region’s violence is particularly striking given that many of its people have historically practised Sufism, among the least fundamentalist branches of Islam. That has been changing, however, as more conservative Wahhabist Islam gains strength. One Chinese academic has called underground Wahhabism in the region “rampant.”
In a recent article, Jin Wei, an anthropologist who teaches at the Central Party School, suggested some of the religious shift is rooted in parents looking for basic Muslim instruction for their children, which has become harder to find amid security clampdowns.
A looser policy on religion “is among the keys to solving the Xinjiang issue,” Ms. Jin wrote. It is “difficult for iron-fist measures to stop such dispersed, individual terrorist threats.”
China sees Xinjiang, which borders India and Central Asia, as a critical link in its building of a new “silk road” to trade energy and other valuable commodities. It has poured money and people into the area.
As a result, Uighur people no longer make up the majority of the population, and face discrimination in finding work, an inability to access senior positions, repression of religious practice and a heavy-handed state presence made up of surveillance cameras and heavily armed police.
Still, despite an invasive domestic spying network that allows security forces to monitor and eavesdrop virtually anyone in the country, China has been unable to head off the attacks.
After Sept. 11, a Chinese academic mocked the U.S. as a country that “has been wielding a large hammer but has been unable to find the flea.” Now China finds itself in a similar situation.
China is skilled at rapidly deploying armed personnel. But it lacks “a cohesive, coordinated intelligence apparatus which is cross-agency based,” said a former counter-terrorism specialist with the British army. “In other words, the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing.”’
Li Wei, an anti-terrorism researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, argued that it is tough to eradicate terrorists who use homemade explosives. But, he said, more can be done.
“The most efficient way of dealing with terror attacks is to discover and stop them early,” he said. “Personally, I think we should put more effort into anti-terrorism intelligence.”