“What’s Been Done to My Beautiful Homeland?”

Nigel Maiti, an ethnically Uighur host for Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, is a well-known and popular entertainer with more than 1 million followers on the social media site Sina Weibo. After 31 were killed by a coordinated bomb and truck attack at an open air market in Urumqi on the morning of May 22, Maiti went online to share his heartache: "On the verge of despair. What's been done to my beautiful homeland?" he wrote.

It was a short 11-character post that got more than a thousand "thumbs up" from other web users, and nearly as many shares. That same question, posed in countless different ways by Uighur and Han Chinese alike, is ricocheting around the Chinese web as people grapple with the fact that China's far western region of Xinjiang has indeed changed.

While the region, homeland of the Turkic-language-speaking, mostly Muslim Uighur minority, has seen sporadic and scattered ethnic violence for many years, it has become markedly more volatile in the last few months and ordinary citizens are increasingly the targets of the attacks.

Ethnic riots in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi left at least 197 people dead in July 2009, and since then there have been several attacks on police stations or other security installments. But more recently, the violence has begun to target ordinary Han Chinese, who now make up a majority of the population in the region. "It makes Afghanistan looks safe," wrote one reader in response to a series of photos on Google Plus collected from Weibo graphically showing the carnage at the Urumqi vegetable market. Mangled bodies lay next to vegetable stalls; black smoke rose in the air; police and bystanders dragged limp bodies to ambulances.

Web users struggled to make sense of the violence. Some blamed the government, pinning fault on policies that were too soft: "Ethnic minorities receive preferential treatment," one wrote on Supercamp, a military discussion bulletin board. "It's freakish. There are terrorists who've gotten off easy." Others said the opposite, that Beijing was being too harsh: "Obviously they aren't satisfied with the government's ethnic policies. It is actually fomenting Han-Uighur antagonism, shaking the foundations of government rule."

Many simply wondered why security forces seemed incapable of stopping the attacks. There have been a string of deadly incidents blamed on Uighur separatists in the last few months, including a coordinated knife attack March 29 in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming that left 29 dead and more than 140 injured. On April 30, bombs at a train station in Urumqi killed two attackers and one civilian. "Can the lives of innocent people be protected?" one user of Chinese social media asked in response to a video posted on Weibo of Urumqi mayor Ilham Sha Bier calling for ethnic unity, and vowing to wipe out the terrorists and separatists.

While many fault policy issues, China's approach to the region hasn't changed much in the past decade, said Zachary Abuza, a professor at Simmons College in Boston and an expert on security and terror issues.

Though basic policies in Xinjiang haven't budged, their implementation has intensified: Over the last ten years, Beijing has stepped up security and promoted the influx of Han migrants into the region while also accelerating urban renewal, which in some cases has resulted in the destruction of traditional Uighur architecture and the dilution of Uighur culture, Abuza said.

"What China has done has been an escalation over time, an incremental tightening of the policy, so it's like the frog in the boiling water: you don't feel it at first," Abuza said. "My guess is it's at a boiling point now."

Maiti, the CCTV host, followed his post about despair with a plea for tolerance and unity. "We are different from each other in a thousand ways; we come from every corner of the country," he wrote, adding that despite the differences everyone was in the same boat. "We must stick together through the storm."

Yiqin Fu and Bethany Allen contributed research.

Media, Politics, Society