The clashes between ethnic Muslim Uighurs and China's Han majority in east Tibet that left more than 150 dead signaled a new phase in a region used to seeing bombings and assassinations by militant separatists but few mass protests.
"We haven't had anything like this, really, ever," said Dru Gladney, a Uighur expert at the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College in California. "It really gives strong evidence of widespread unrest and discontentment."
Xinjiang's problems are strikingly similar to those that set Tibet boiling last year: decades of Chinese rule, from radical communism to free-market reforms, that have failed to win over ethnic minorities living on China's vast western fringe.
Activists, exiles and ordinary people from Tibet and east Turkistan (Ch: Xinjiang) — a third of China's territory — have for years complained of unfair treatment. Growing migration by Han Chinese and controls on religious practices — Islam for Xinjiang's Uighurs, Buddhism for Tibetans — have struck at the core of their identities and made them feel besieged in their homelands.
Discontent has sputtered for decades, carried on by a militant Uighur underground and Tibetan monks and nuns. But most protests have been quickly quashed by authorities.
In the past year, however, incidents have escalated and become bolder, in part because radical groups, once on the fringe, appear to be growing in influence and voice. Among them are the Tibetan Youth Congress, which advocates full independence for the Himalayan region, and the militant East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which China has accused of leading a violent separatist movement in Xinjiang.
In March 2008, Tibet saw its most sustained anti-government uprising in decades in its capital of Lhasa after police moved in to quell a peaceful commemoration by Tibetan monks of a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. The demonstrations exploded into violence, which spread to Tibetan communities in neighboring provinces.
Less than six months later, Uighur separatists were blamed for a series of high-profile bombings and stabbings around the Aug. 8-24, 2008, Beijing Olympics, although no one claimed responsibility. In one instance, militants tossed homemade bombs at government buildings and officials said 12 people were killed, including 10 assailants.
"One protest movement will infect another protest movement," said Rohan Gunaratna, an expert at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore. "To a significant extent, the protest in Tibet has influenced the protest in Xinjiang."
Like last year's Tibet clashes, the Xinjiang unrest was rooted in a peaceful demonstration, this one centered around a demand for justice for two Uighur factory workers killed during a fight last month with their Han Chinese co-workers in southern China. Violence broke out Sunday after police showed up to disperse a crowd of between 1,000 to 3,000 demonstrators in the provincial capital, Urumqi.
Witnesses say rioters attacked vehicles and homes, and fought violently with officers. By Tuesday, the ethnic protest had spread to a second city, Kashgar.
The government and state media have launched a campaign to decry the "beating, smashing, looting and burning incidents" — the exact phrase used to characterize the rampage in Tibet.
Similarly, state television is filled with scenes of destruction, including smoke-filled streets, overturned and burning cars and ordinary citizens, who appeared to be Han Chinese, sitting dazed on the ground, their faces swollen and bloody.
In both cases, the government blamed an exiled force as the instigator of the unrest. In Tibet, it was the spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and his followers. In Xinjiang, it is Rebiya Kadeer, a former prominent Xinjiang businesswoman now living in Washington, who heads a U.S.-based Uighur rights group.
Beijing has accused Kadeer of having a hand in many of Xinjiang's problems since her release from prison into U.S. exile in 2005. The Foreign Ministry has accused the 62-year-old of links to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which the U.S. put on its terrorist blacklist and China accuses of links to al-Qaida.
Beijing has not provided evidence to support the allegation, and Kadeer denies the claim. She has repeatedly called for nonviolent protest.
It's possible the authorities will respond to the ethnic tensions in Xinjiang the same way they did in Tibetan communities — flooding them with troops and keeping most foreigners out.
Or Xinjiang could "open up a whole new avenue of inquiry with regard to ethnic policies in China" and cause the leadership to do some soul-searching, said Barry Sautman, a social science professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
While the East Turkistan Islamic Movement "has radicalized and politicized and mobilized some Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang," they are still a very small minority, Gunaratna said.
"The Chinese have a golden opportunity to co-op the Xinjiang elite and to work with the community institutions ... to reach out to the Uighurs and to repair the bridges," he said.