China Attack Gives Xi Impetus to Tighten Grip on Security

China’s Communist leader Xi Jinping, already emerging more powerful than his predecessor, has fresh impetus to tighten his hold on domestic security after an outcry over a knife attack on civilians three days ago.

The Weibo microblogging service lit up with outrage in the wake of the stabbing deaths of 29 people, many of them migrant workers, at a train station in the southern city of Kunming -- a shock officials blamed on members of the ethnic Uighur separatist movement. One such posting, said: “It isn’t possible to negotiate with you or make any concessions,” from “Drowning Fish.”

Since coming to power Xi has concentrated control of the military and the domestic security apparatus, heading a new security council and a committee on the restive western province of Xinjiang, home to the bulk of the Muslim Uighur minority. He ordered a clampdown on “terrorist activities” after the attack.

“This will strengthen Xi Jinping’s hand,” said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong. “This kind of feeling will be exploited by the authorities to engage in a crackdown.”

Political violence has risen in China even under Xi. The attack, just days before the start of the annual National People’s Congress, underscored the government’s inability to defuse tensions with ethnic minorities chafing against Chinese rule, offering authorities the chance to step up controls on public expressions of support in the name of protecting civilians.

‘Most Powerful’

The killings are “a blow to the Chinese security system,” said Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. “At the central level and the local level they are trying to set up a good system to keep society safe but this means the system doesn’t work. So they have to rethink.”

Before he replaced Hu Jintao as president a year ago, Xi was named chairman of the Central Military Commission. Last week he headed a meeting of a new committee focused on cyber security.

“Xi is on track to becoming the most powerful man since Deng Xiaoping,” who led China after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Suh Jin Young, a professor of Chinese politics at Seoul’s Korea University, said by phone. “China’s war against terrorism will help Xi increase his political power. He’s already exercising more authority than ever thanks to a growing consensus that a powerful man is needed on top of a collective leadership.”

Spreading Violence

At this week’s annual meeting of the legislature, the government will release figures for internal security and defense spending for this year. Last year it forecast military spending would rise 10.7 percent to 740.6 billion yuan ($120 billion) and outlays on public security would increase 8.7 percent to 769 billion yuan.

“The killings would generate greater pressure on Xi and his administration to act more decisively,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in England. “Xi was on track to take a tough line against the ‘separatists or restless minorities’ anyway and the Kunming incident will only reinforce this trend,” he said.

Chinese police shot and killed four suspects and captured three, the official Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday. A wounded woman was detained at the scene on March 1, it said.

Attack Evidence

Confirmation of a Uighur role would further indicate ethnic violence is spreading beyond Xinjiang. Authorities also blamed Uighurs for an attack in October when a sports-utility vehicle crashed into a crowd near Beijing’s Tiananmen square, killing two tourists and the three people in the vehicle.

China faces a “grim” situation in the struggle against terrorism, Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun said after the Tiananmen Square crash.

Authorities found evidence of flags from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement at the Kunming scene, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said yesterday. “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.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the attack appeared to be an act of terrorism targeting random members of the public. “We acknowledge that China has characterized the incident as a terror act,” she told reporters yesterday at a briefing.

‘State Enemies’

The Munich-based World Uyghur Congress said it condemned the Kunming violence and called on the Chinese government to ensure the minority group was not subject to indiscriminate reprisals.

“It is important the Chinese government deal with the incident rationally and not set about demonizing the Uighur people as state enemies,” Rebiya Kadeer, president of the group, said in a statement yesterday. “It is absolutely vital the Chinese government deal with the longstanding and deteriorating human rights issues facing Uighurs if tensions are to be reduced.”

The East Turkestan Islamic Movement was founded by a Uighur separatist and listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in 2002. China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said last year the group was the country’s most direct security threat.

“In the past, people really have wondered if some of these charges were trumped up in order to support repression and increased security and militarization of the region,” said Dru Gladney, a professor of anthropology at Pomona College in Claremont, California. “But now it’s a national problem and it’s not just in Xinjiang.”

Han Chinese

Tensions between Han Chinese, who comprise more than 90 percent of the national population, and the Uighurs, who account for about 40 percent of the population of Xinjiang, have led to an increase in violence in the northwest. In February, police killed eight people who attacked a convoy of patrol cars in Xinjiang, while weeks earlier six rioters who were planting explosives were shot and killed. Another 50 people died in separatist-related attacks in the region between June of last year and December.

Authorities 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 arrested on charges of “splitting the country.”

“The regime has tragically mangled relations with the main minorities,” Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University in New York, said by e-mail. “They have tried to ‘modernize’ the Tibetans and Uighurs, which those populations perceive as disrespectful and not in their own interests.”

Tibet Protests

Protests against Chinese rule in Tibet have also flared. There have been 127 self-immolations by Tibetans since Feb. 27, 2009, the International Campaign for Tibet said on its website. China last month warned that relations with the U.S. could suffer after President Barack Obama hosted a White House meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader who Chinese authorities accuse of engaging in separatist activities.

The fallout from Kunming may mean Xi extends a crackdown on other forms of dissent. In January, legal scholar Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years in jail on charges of gathering a crowd to disturb public order, the most prominent activist jailed since Nobel Peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo in 2009. At least 50 activists were arrested between February and October, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“The party’s and the public security’s control obviously is in decline because there’s more freedom to travel and so on,” City University’s Cheng said. “Now it’s much more difficult.”

— With assistance by Kevin Hamlin, and Andrew Davis

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.