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In this Friday, May 23, 2014 file photo, paramilitary policemen with shields and batons patrol near the People's Square in Urumqi, China's northwestern region of Xinjiang.


On a sunny morning, four black trucks race north on Beijing's second ring road, lights flashing and sires blazing. "Te jing," the script on the side says: special police. In the sky over a busy bar district, a helicopter turns clattering circles, one of five dispatched to monitor China's capital from on high. In the two blocks leading to a scooter shop in an otherwise unremarkable neighbourhood, a dozen security officers stand on street corners and sit in the shade of doorsteps.

It's getting harder to escape the feeling that Beijing is a city under siege, as China responds to a series of terror attacks with the full might of its enormous security apparatus, even as political leaders promise an accompanying crackdown on some of the country's Muslims.

Armed police are now patrolling more than a dozen of Beijing's most crowded and sensitive areas, including busy subway stations, the airport, railway stations and the streets around Tiananmen Square, in the heart of downtown. They have been equipped with double the usual number of bullets, instructed to shoot terrorists on sight – abandoning earlier protocols to first give warning – and equipped with cut-resistant gloves to allow them to grab an attacker's knife.

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"Once an emergency happens, nearby armed police will arrive in the area within one minute," Zhang Bing, deputy director of the city's powerful Public Security Bureau, told reporters this weekend.

Local police were also recently instructed to stop having fun on phones while on duty.

Beijing is hardly the only centre at the eye of a security storm, after a terror attack killed 39 last week, the latest in a string of bombings that have stoked a nationwide response.

According to the country's Xinhua news agency, police forces in some 30 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities have taken to airports, rail and subway stations to conduct terrorism drills in the past two months.

They are also being armed at a rapid pace.

In the old capital city of Nanjing, some 5,000 police – a third of the city's total – are being dispatched to the streets in an effort to ensure people see officers in uniform at all times.

In Xinjiang, the region where last week's early morning attack blew up a fruit and vegetable market, China pledged a full year of high-profile interventions.

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This is in some ways the Chinese state doing what it does best: mobilizing vast numbers of security personnel in an attempt to crush an uprising.

But it's going farther as well, pledging a war on religion alongside its war on terror. The Xinjiang region is the homeland of the Uyghurs, a traditionally Muslim people. Secessionist radical Uyghurs have been blamed for a series of attacks. Now China is threatening a much broader response.

On Monday, Zhang Chunxian, chief of the Communist Party in Xinjiang, pledged "strengthened management of religious affairs in accordance with the law," according to remarks reported by Xinhua.

That includes "special campaigns to regulate illegal religious activities, crack down on criminal offences by religious extremists in accordance with law, and guide religions to accommodate a socialist society," Xinhua reported.

The bombings in Xinjiang are set against that region's wide unease with China, which stems in large measure from Beijing's existing restrictions on the practice of religion.

It has physically delivered food to Muslim elders, for example, to "encourage" them not to fast during Ramadan, on health grounds. Local authorities installed a Chinese flag at the head of one mosque, which created the discomfiting image of adherents bowing to the Chinese state during their prayers. Authorities have also ordered women not to wear head scarves; a recent protest against clothing restrictions was met by police bullets sprayed into a crowd.

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That has led critics to suggest that China, rather than further cracking down, should do exactly the opposite.

"This terrible attack provides a moment for the Chinese authorities to rethink their long-term approach to Xinjiang, otherwise the situation is unlikely to improve," said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, in a recent statement.

It's a sentiment that is increasingly common in China as well, with the country's own academics warning that an iron fist only causes more trouble. The "high-pressure policy in Xinjiang has descended to a vicious circle," Hu Xingdou, professor of economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology told Bloomberg recently. "More crackdowns will breed more violent attacks."

A recent article by Jin Wei, who teaches at the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China – in many ways, the institution closest to its leadership – called for a whole-scale rethinking of the country's approach in Xinjiang. Instead of drilling for oil and then piping away the profits, she suggested investments in the kinds of business locals work in: grains, cotton, fruit and cows.

"You must let the masses do something, earn incomes, have a stake," she wrote.

For now, however, that prospect hardly seems hopeful. The only stake China holds any interest in is the one it hopes to drive through the heart of terrorists.

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