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Sep 30, 2015 | 14:58 GMT

4 mins read

China's Liucheng Bombings Rekindle Fears of Militancy

China's Liucheng Bombings Rekindle Fears of Militancy
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

On the afternoon of Sept. 30, at least 13 explosions occurred within two hours at various locations across Liucheng county in the Chinese province of Guangxi. Chinese reports suggest that parcel bombs exploded at the sites, although the extent of the damage shown in some images points to either the use of larger explosives or secondary damage caused by natural gas tanks or other material already on site. Some of the damage may also be the result of "fuel air explosions," where perpetrators fill an apartment with natural gas and ignite it.

At least six people have already been reported dead and dozens more have been injured, though judging from the photos and videos, the final death toll will be far larger. The explosions took place at various government and public sites, including a hospital, a prison and a market. According to initial reports, the attack was likely conducted by a single individual seeking revenge on society because of a "medical dispute." Many attacks in China are carried out by individuals with grievances, and easily accessible explosives are a common tool. Discontent among the population is of particular concern to Beijing at a time when China's economic growth is starting to slow. However, given the scope of the attack and the extent of the damage, the attacks have the appearance of a more coordinated effort.

Given Guangxi's close proximity to Vietnam, additional suspicion may focus on a militant arm of China's Uighur minority. Liucheng is not one of the counties near the Vietnamese border, but the greater Guangxi province and neighboring Yunnan make up part of a human smuggling route for ethnic Uighurs out of China to Vietnam, Thailand and other locations in Southeast Asia. From there, some Uighurs transit further to Turkey or the Middle East. However, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security has thus far refrained from labeling the coordinated bombing attack an act of terror.

The Thai government has attributed a recent bombing in central Bangkok to individuals connected to the Uighur smuggling networks who were allegedly upset at the Thai government's decision to deport more than 100 Uighurs back to China. If this attack in Guangxi was indeed perpetrated by a group of Uighur militants, then escalating political violence on the part of the Uighur minority may presage the renewal of a more active Uighur militancy, which had largely abated because of crackdowns in China as well as government and military action in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia to quash the international training and recruitment reach of the movement.

Chinese officials have been warning that Uighur militancy may be on the rise. Officials worry that Uighurs could receive training and operational experience in Syria, Iraq or Central Asia that they could then bring back to Xinjiang or greater China to strengthen armed resistance. While most recent attacks credited to Uighurs have been local actions carried out primarily with mass knife attacks and small explosive devices, a coordinated attack at more than a dozen locations requires far more planning and coordination — not to mention operational security and logistics. China's response is likely to be swift at home, and may include large-scale roundups of the usual suspects, a further tightening of borders and the expansion of diplomatic activity with neighboring states to quell movement of Uighurs across borders. In fact, this is exactly what the Uighurs militants were attempting to provoke. But if this is a Uighur attack, and if training or operational elements can be traced to the instability in Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq, it may also drive China to take a more active role in these conflict areas. Already, China is expanding its military cooperation and training, and further cooperation as well as its potentially direct involvement may not be out of the question as Beijing redefines its international role.

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