China’s President Xi Jinping ordered a crackdown on “violent terrorist activities” after 33 people died when knife-wielding assailants rampaged through a train station in a southwestern city on March 1.
Local officials in Kunming said evidence at the scene showed it was a terrorist attack orchestrated by Xinjiang separatist forces, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday. A group promoting human rights for the region’s minority people, the Uighur, called for a transparent investigation.
The assault, days before the annual meeting of the legislature in Beijing, highlights growing social unrest amid widening inequality and increasing tensions between the state and ethnic groups such as the mostly Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang. The ruling Communist Party last November set up a state committee to better coordinate security issues as it faces dissent at home and expands its military reach.
“The problem in China is that there’s no mechanism for people who think they are victims of discrimination to seek redress,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “There is no dialogue between the authorities and those with grievances, so they resort to violence, and from official reports it appears the frequency and intensity of those outbursts is increasing.”
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which started around 9:20 p.m. when more than 10 people dressed in black and armed with knives stormed through the square and ticket hall of the railway station, Xinhua said.
“They were hacking at people like crazy, they didn’t stop to look,” Qin Gang, a 51-year-old local man who rents out his van, said from a hospital bed after being shot through the lower left arm by a police bullet. He said he joined police and security guards running after a group of assailants as they fled from the station.
Qin said he saw at least five attackers, including two women clad in long robes with only their eyes exposed. They carried knives that were as long as a man’s arm and a few inches wide, he said.
“If nobody tried to stop them a lot more would have been killed,” he said. “Hatred may explain this but is there anything personal at all between them and ordinary people?”
Li Li, the head of the Kunming No. 1 People’s Hospital, where many of the wounded were taken, visited victims and handed each one 2,000 yuan ($325) in a brown envelope. Li also gave a basket of fruit and food donated by Kunming residents.
“Don’t worry about medical fees, food or any other expense,” Li said. “The government will take care of it.”
Twenty nine people died in the attack, according to Xinhua, with more than 140 injured. Four masked assailants were killed by the police, one was captured and the others are being hunted, it said.
Investigations into the attack are continuing, with evidence of flags from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement found at the scene, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters today in Beijing. Authorities have blamed the group for past violence in Xinjiang.
“No matter who they are or what group they belong to, no matter where or what time the incident took place, the Chinese government will severely crack down on them in accordance with the law,” Qin said.
Kunming is the capital of southwest Yunnan province, home to at least 25 ethnic minority groups who number 15.5 million in total, about a third of the provincial population, according to the local government website. The city is is about 1,550 miles (2,496 kilometers) southeast of the Xinjiang capital Urumqi.
Police arrived at one the city’s Uighur neighborhoods, Dashuying, on the night of March 1 after the attack and checked people’s identification, according to residents. They also told Uighurs not to travel outside Kunming, unless returning to Xinjiang, they said. A dozen uniformed police were seen registering IDs of Uighurs at a street-side Xinjiang restaurant in the district today.
“We demand a transparent investigation,” Dolkun Isa, chairman of the executive committee of the Munich, Germany-based World Uighur Congress, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “Terrorism charges brought immediately after the event creates doubts among the Uighur community in the absence” of such a probe, he said.
Meng Jianzhu, the nation’s top security official, and Guo Shengkun, minister of public security, went to Kunming to direct the investigation, Xinhua said.
“This brutal attack on defenseless, innocent people by violent terrorists devoid of conscience exposes their inhuman and anti-social nature,” Xinhua quoted Meng as saying. “We must mobilize all resources and adopt all means to break this case,” he said.
In an English-language commentary yesterday, Xinhua journalist Gui Tao called the assault China’s “9-11,” a reference to the hijacking of four airliners and the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, which left more than 3,000 people dead or missing.
The attack in Kunming “was an issue of terrorism with links to the terrorist forces out of the country,” Yin Zhuo, director of the Expert Consultation Committee of the Navy division of the People’s Liberation Army, was quoted in a separate Xinhua report as saying. Yin is a member of the country’s top political advisory body, the CPPCC, which starts its annual meeting in Beijing today. The National People’s Congress opens March 5.
“The party thinks there is a close connection between internal security and external threats,” said Lam. “There is a well-entrenched conspiracy theory that the most serious de-stabilizing forces are backed by the West.”
Violent terrorist attacks have been increasing since 2009 and have become the biggest security threat to Xinjiang, Xinhua said. Some 190 terrorist attacks were recorded in the region in 2012, increasing by “a significant margin from 2011,” it said, citing the regional public security bureau.
The United Nations Security Council condemned the attack. “The members of the Security Council underlined the need to bring perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of this terrorist attack to justice,” the council said in a statement yesterday.
Japan offered its condolences to the victims, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters today in Tokyo. The government “will continue to pay close attention to this incident,” Suga said.
Police last month killed eight people who attacked a convoy of patrol cars in Xinjiang’s Wushi county, according to Tianshan, a website run by the local government press office. In January six rioters who were planting explosives were shot dead, Tianshan reported that month.
Tensions between the state and Xinjiang have spilled over to other parts of the country.
In October, a sport-utility vehicle plowed into a crowd at Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing and burst into flames, killing the three occupants and two bystanders. Meng, the top security official, said the people in the SUV had links to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
Authorities have detained Ilham Tohti, a Uighur academic, on suspicion of committing crimes and violating laws, Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman said last month. His lawyer, Li Fangping, said Tohti was formally arrested last month on charges of “splitting the country.”
— With assistance by Henry Sanderson, and Fan Wenxin