At approximately 9pm last Saturday evening eight men and women dressed entirely in black and armed with axes and knives entered Kunming railway station and began hacking at people inside.
In the 20 minute frenzy that followed at least 29 people were killed and 130 were injured.
Four of the attackers were shot dead at the scene. Another was arrested the same night and three more were apprehended the next day.
Chinese authorities have blamed the attack on Uighur separatists – i.e. those who want independence for the vast western region of Xinjiang. The foreign ministry said an East Turkestan flag and insignia had been found at the scene of the attack. East Turkestan is the name often used for an independent Uighur homeland.
The discovery of the flag and the insignia comes across as convenient (there are no images to back this claim up). But there is little reason to doubt that the attack was carried out by people from Xinjiang unhappy at being ruled from Beijing. Attacks have increased in the last year and it now appears there has been a shift away from organising confrontations in Xinjiang to “soft” targets outside the region.
“It shows that Uighurs are, like Chechens in Russia, expressing their discontent throughout the country, not just where they are based,” Dru Gladney, a professor at Pomona College and author of Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People’s Republic, told the Los Angeles Times.
The Global Times put it more succinctly: “Terrorists are trying to set fire to the interior.”
Last October Uighur terrorists were blamed for a deadly car bomb that killed two passersby outside the gates to Beijing’s Forbidden City.
That attack was not planned to coincide with a political event.
But the latest one was: in this case, the opening of China’s annual leglislative session, the National People’s Congress. It met this week in Beijing.
The choice of Kunming – some distance from Xinjiang – has left many people baffled. Although the southwestern city does not have a sizeable Uighur population, some Chinese academics have suggested that people from Xinjiang travel there to traffic drugs from across the highly porous Burmese border.
Another suggestion was that some of the attackers might have gone abroad for training – possibly to Afghanistan or Pakistan – and Kunming may have been a point of re-entry for them. “Yunnan, which borders the notorious Golden Triangle, has become a major place for Xinjiang separatist forces to hide or sneak into neighbouring countries and to join in jihad in the Middle East,” Xinhua suggested.
Western academics offered another reason for why the violence is spilling out of Xinjiang: the ratcheting up of a security campaign in the resource-rich region since a series of riots killed 198 people – mostly Han Chinese – in Urumqi in 2009 (see WiC24) .
What was largely missing from Chinese discussion of the attack were some of the reasons – discrimination, lack of religious and cultural freedom – that have led many Uighurs to chafe at Beijing’s rule.
Instead, the official line was this was an act of “global terrorism”: the same kind that led to the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001.
Some Chinese media began referring to the savagery in Kunming as “China’s 9/11”.
The failure by the Western media to portray it in quite the same light then became a story in its own right, with the People’s Daily launching a blistering attack on CNN, the Washington Post, AP and the New York Times for refusing to use the word “terrorist” to describe the attackers.
“This was an act of terrorism directed against the whole of humanity, civilisation and society… but coverage of the incident by a few Western media organisations… was dishonest and appeared to be directed by ulterior motives,” the newspaper fumed.
It added: “Don’t they love to talk about ‘human rights’? Did they not see the pictures of innocent victims lying in pools of their own blood?”
The US embassy in Beijing updated its weibo feed after a similar outcry (50,000 angry Chinese objected online to its description of the attack as a “horrific, senseless act of violence), with the State Department subsequently referring to the knife attack as an “act of terrorism”.
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