THE SINGULARITY OF the knife attack at Kunming station makes this Bystander wary of extrapolating its impact on both the public and authorities — and in particular whether it represents an escalation of Uighur dissent against Beijing that will require an escalation of the authorities’ efforts to suppress it.
Twenty-nine people were reportedly killed and more than 130 wounded, 20 still critically so, when a group of masked assailants wielding long knives hacked at the crowd of train travelers on Saturday evening. Police shot dead four and took one suspected assailant, reportedly an injured woman, into custody. The remainder, said at the time to number five, fled. Authorities now say it was three and that they have all been captured.
The attack was blamed in short order on separatists from Xinjiang. No evidence has been offered so far to support that claim. Equally there is nothing to discount it.
Beijing has been fighting a low-level but increasingly violent insurgency in its natural-resources-rich western reaches for decades. The 8.4 million-strong Uighur minority in Xinjiang, mostly Turkic Sunni Muslims, though far from universally supportive of the tiny separatist groups, resents the growing Han dominance of the province. It feels its culture and economic prospects being increasingly diminished. Anti-Han riots in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, left some 200 dead in 2009, and ushered in another crack-down by Beijing as well as the installation of 40,000 riot-proof cameras on the streets of the city.
The Kunming station attack set several precedents, if it indeed was by Uighur separatists. First, the casualty toll was far greater than in previous attacks. Second, the attack was against the public rather than police or officials. Third, it took place in Kunming, capital of southwestern Yunnan and more than 1,000 miles from Xinjiang, though there was a suicide car bombing in Tiananmen Square late last year, said to have been carried out by Uighurs.
State media are being made to walk a fine line between reporting a deadly act of terror that has shocked China and keeping questions from being raised about why the authorities didn’t prevent it happening in the first place and why Uighurs are so resentful of Han Chinese. Staging the attack in the openness of a large railway station makes it more difficult for officials to control the information flow; the first pictures of the event were posted widely on social media, and bloody. The most gruesome have been taken down. Online comment has been curtailed.
The openness of the attack also makes it more difficult to control the public narrative about the event. Hitherto, the state narrative has portrayed ethnic-religious violence in the country as terrorism originating outside China. The finger has been readily pointed at places such as Pakistan, Turkey and, more recently, Syria. The point being made is that it is not home-grown. This has proved an effective tactic for making it more difficult for dissenting ethnic minorities within China to make common cause.
Early comments in state media about the attack being “China’s 9/11” have been toned down. Such remarks misunderstand both the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. and the one in Kunming station. Washington has, however, changed its description of the Kunming station attack from an act of violence to an act of terror. Beijing will welcome that as an aid to its portmanteau crack down on dissent — and to its continuing struggle with Washington over the issues of human rights. That may turn out to be the Kunming station attack’s most lasting impact.