A man squats on a concrete barrier as others wash and scrub the site of the Wednesday's explosion outside the Urumqi South Railway Station. Pic: AP.

Xinjiang separatists wielded knives and detonated a bomb at a train station in the capital of Urumqi on Wednesday, according to state media, leaving three dead and 79 injured.

The attack occurred during a high profile visit by president Xi Jinping, who had hoped to tout his government’s economic and security measures in the volatile western Chinese autonomous region. Critics say those very policies push extremists in Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslim minority toward such violence.

“We can see from this that Xinjiang is in a period of turmoil, and such incidents could happen again at any time. This is the trend and it’s directly related to Beijing’s policies,” Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, said in an interview with Reuters yesterday. He also called the mainland’s presence repressive, and pointed to the past arrests of innocent Uighurs as one of many catalysts.

State officials instead blamed the incident on religious extremism, with Xi saying in an official statement that: “’The battle to combat violence and terrorism will not allow even a moment of slackness, and decisive actions must be taken to resolutely suppress the terrorists’ rampant momentum.”

According to an article published in England’s The Daily Mail, Xinjiang’s regional government officials say that two suspects with a history of religious extremism died after detonating the explosive yesterday. The authorities did not clarify whether or not the attack was a suicide bombing.

Xinhua, the state’s media service, said the attack occurred at approximately 7pm on Wednesday at the exit of the Urumqi South Railway station. It also said, “The blast was powerful. A man at a nearby hotel said he thought it was an earthquake.” Another Xinhua article described Xi as saying: “The long-term stability of the autonomous region is vital to the whole country’s reform, development and stability, as well as to national unity.”

That latter sentiment was echoed online, as thousands of Chinese citizens condemned the attacks on message boards. One post reads: “They are trying to break up the country!” Some users blamed the extremists’ Muslim faith, with one writing: “Dressed in the cloak of religion, they do wicked crimes. They’re the enemy of all mankind.”

The mainland’s anxiety about Xinjiang extremism has been escalating steadily, especially as the violence seeps out of Xinjiang’s borders. Last month, 29 people were stabbed to death by Uighur extremists in the southwestern city Kunming. In October, a car exploded near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and a police investigation pointed to Xinjiang separatists. However, the animosity dates back far earlier than that, the worst case being in 2009 when clashes between Uighur and Chinese Han mobs claimed the lives of 200 people in Urumqi.

As the Islamaphobic rhetoric grows on mainland websites, international human rights groups and many local Xinjiang Muslims instead blame the government’s heavy-handed tactics. An article in India’s Times News Network ran a story in November detailing a particularly contentious campaign called “Project Beauty.” The government program aimed to discourage local Muslim women from wearing veils as it “exploited womens’ vanity by staging beauty contests designed to highlight the attractiveness of their uncovered faces.” The article also described accounts of police harassing and accosting veiled women and bearded men in the street.

Other critics say that mainland China is exploiting the resource rich region.  A 2009 story in National Geographic titled “The Other Tibet,” said that Xinjiang houses 40 per cent of China’s coal reserves, and more than a fifth of its natural gas. The article also described Urumqi as “a sprawling city that serves Han migrants drawn by Xinjiang’s natural resources, where a Uygur minority stays confined to its quarter.”