Dozens of police officers wearing bulletproof vests and toting assault rifles guard the camp of an international off-road race across China’s troubled far-western region of Xinjiang.

The show of strength at the mobile camp that follows the Silk Way Rally highlights China’s concerns about security in Xinjiang, a vast region that has been hit by violence in recent years.

The Silk Way Rally, which held its first race in 2009, aims to rival the famed Dakar Rally which has run every January since 1979.

silk way xinjiang
US driver Bryce Menzies and his co-driver Peter Mortensen drive past Chinese police officers during Stage 8 of the Silk Way 2017 between Karamay and Urumqi, China, on July 15, 2017. Photo: AFP/Franck Fife.

The 10,000-kilometre (6,200-mile) race began in Moscow on July 7 and crossed Kazakhstan before entering Xinjiang. The event will end on July 22 in the imperial Chinese city of Xi’an in the northern province of Shaanxi.

The partially desert territory of Xinjiang is home to China’s Muslim Uighur ethnic minority, which accuses the government of cultural and religious repression and discrimination. The majority of the country is ethnically Han.

A radicalised Uighur fringe in recent years has staged a series of stabbing or explosives attacks which have cost hundreds of lives in the region and the rest of China.

The capital of Urumqi, this past weekend’s race stopover, was the scene of a bombing that killed 43 in 2014 and riots that resulted in about 200 deaths in 2009.

‘No danger’

The rally “has to be secured and protected because the character of terrorism is there whether the event is organised in Paris, in London or in Xinjiang”, Rohan Gunaratna, a professor of security studies at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told AFP.

China blames the violence on Islamist “separatists” linked to foreign groups and imposes draconian security measures in the region: metal detectors, checkpoints, a widespread military presence and frequent arrests, as well as the delayed issuance of passports to Uighurs.

In March President Xi Jinping ordered security forces to build a metaphorical “great wall of steel” around the region after Uighurs claiming to belong to a division of the Islamic State group in Iraq threatened to return home and “shed blood like rivers”.

But while the Dakar Rally was relocated from Africa to South America in 2009 due to security threats, the Silk Way is still holding fast to its route.

“The south of Xinjiang is still being hit by a number of attacks but they have declined in the past two years,” Li Wei, an anti-terrorism expert at the Beijing-based Institute for Contemporary International Relations, told AFP.

“An international car competition is not dangerous today,” he said.

Gunaratna noted that fears of terrorism should not prevent international events from taking place in the region, as “any form of engagement is crucial for Xinjiang” — from cultural and social to commercial.

Concealing reality?

“If you are living isolated from other communities and other faiths, then the idea of extremism can grow during this period,” Gunaratna said. “Because the Islamic State is using social media to radicalise vulnerable communities.”

China believes that security and economic growth will bring stability to Xinjiang.

But human rights organisations condemn the encroachments on freedom in the name of security, accusing authorities of slapping a “terrorism” label on anyone who opposes them.

Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uighur Congress — an organisation of Uighur exiles — said the Silk Way rally has “above all a political objective”.

“It’s to project a good image abroad and to conceal the reality of the Uighurs’ resistance,” he said.

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