A band of 10 or more people wearing black face masks and brandishing long knives walked into a busy train station in southwestern China on Saturday night and began to indiscriminately attack civilians. Police soon began to fire on the assailants, and within a few minutes at least 29 people were dead. At least 130 people injured in the attack were brought to hospitals across Kunming, capital city of Yunnan province, where the rampage occurred. As of Sunday evening in China, about half of the assailants are believed to still be at large.
State media have already labeled the assault a terrorist attack and referred to the incident as “China’s ‘9/11.’” Although no details about the identities of individual assailants have been released, state-run newswire Xinhua attributed the massacre to “terrorists from Xinjiang,” the far western territory where Uighur minority people have long chafed at Beijing’s rule and resent the apparent economic privileges, such as preferential hiring, afforded to recent Han Chinese arrivals in the region. Periodic violence in Xinjiang–often involving Uighurs attacking police stations, and police responding with lethal force–is all too common.
In the past this violence didn’t spill outside of Xinjiang. Worryingly, that seems to be changing. Last fall a fatal flaming car crash near Tiananmen Square killed three passengers and two bystanders; China’s security chief attributed the suicide crash in Beijing to Uighur separatists. Now the Kunming bus station attack would mark the first large-scale attack on civilians by alleged separatists. China’s Phoenix TV has released crime scene photos that show what police describe as a Xinjiang independence banner.
Tensions are likely to get much worse before they get better. While most of China’s 10 million Uighurs are neither murderers nor active participants in a separatist movement, suspicion falls on all. In Kunming, locals report that building managers are asking residents to report Uighurs, both residents and visitors, to their local police stations—whether or not there’s any reason to suspect those particular individuals have ties to Saturday’s massacre. The assumption of complicity or guilt further stokes Uighurs’ resentment. Uighur friends in Beijing tell me, with understandable bitterness, that police often treat them as criminals or likely criminals.
ChinaFile, an online magazine published by the Asia Society, recently ran an insightful series of short essays in response to the question, “Are ethnic tensions on the rise in China?” James Millward, a historian specializing in Xinjiang at Georgetown University, pointed out that effective mechanisms don’t exist in China’s minority regions to raise and address grievances. “It is far more dangerous for Tibetans or Uyghurs to raise their voices than for Han.” Unfortunately, he wrote, distrust and suspicions of violence “can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Lu Guoping, a well-known columnist and public figure in China, wrote on his Sina Weibo account: “Pray for Kunming. No matter what tragic experience you [the attackers] had, and no matter what profound motive you have, when you chose civilians as your target, you become the enemy of humanity, cowardly and shameful criminals.”