A police officer at the Kunming railway station after the attack. Is this China's '9/11'? Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images

China Grapples With Its Own '9/11'

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
Read More.
a | A

It's the rare Chinese who hasn't waited in a long line at a railway ticket window, then moved along to a waiting room so crowded that the only seats available are atop the luggage that passengers bring with them. Just during this year's 40-day Chinese New Year rush, Chinese took 258 million individual rail journeys, often on standing-room only night trains. It's a ubiquitous, leveling experience, shared by students, migrant laborers and business travelers who increasingly prefer China's high-speed rail lines to the expense and inconvenience of air travel.

In China, to interfere with rail is to disrupt the lifestyles and economies that have grown up around an increasingly mobile Chinese society. And to attack the people who ride those rails -- as happened Saturday night, in a horrific terror strike whereby a group of masked, knife-wielding terrorists killed 29 and injured more than 140 in Kunming's main railway station -- is to leave most Chinese feeling much less secure, much as Americans might feel after an attack on a McDonald's, a movie theater or an airport. The parallel, at least for some Chinese political commentators, is obvious. "It was a typical terrorist attack and also a severe crime against the humanity," wrote Gui Tao, a writer with the state-owned newswire Xinhua, in an English-language commentary on Sunday. "It was China's '9-11.'"

It's possible, of course, to interpret the mention of Sept. 11 as an effort to shift the attention from the ethnic tensions that many cite as the cause of the attack. Certainly Xinhua, as a state news media outlet, doesn't have much interest in discussing the roots of separatist sentiment in Xinjiang province, home to a largely Muslim Uighur minority, from which the attackers are said to originate, according to state news media. For ordinary Chinese on the other hand, the embrace of 9/11 as a parallel for what is now being called 3/1 has less to do with politics than with the profound psychological impact of the terror attack.

Obviously, 3/1 did not incur the human costs of 9/11, but in many ways the climate in China now is not unlike that which persisted after 9/11 in the U.S. In particular, just as many Americans were offended by the effort to explore the motives of the 9/11 attackers, so are Chinese offended at efforts by foreign news media to explore Uighur grievances. The reluctance is two-fold: First, there's an unwillingness to lend the attackers' motives legitimacy and second, there's a national consensus that terrorism -- of all kinds -- should be ruled wrong, no matter the cause.

Take, for example, Li Changpeng, one of China's most prominent social critics and a writer whose work has repeatedly run afoul of the authorities. Early Sunday morning, he used his Sina Weibo microblogging account to respond to suggestions from another Weibo user that he was perhaps a little soft on terror. As translated by the Offbeat China blog, he wrote:

"No matter who, for whatever reason, or of what ethnicity, chose a place as crowded as a train station, and targeted at innocent people -- they are evil and they should go to hell."

Understandably, this point of view is accompanied by a desire to see the state respond vigorously and without mercy. Chinese President Xi Jinping, understanding the yearning for action, issued a statement promising an "all-out effort" to punish the terrorists shortly after the attack. For China's shocked citizenry, that rhetoric is welcome but probably not sufficient. Over the last two days, for example, online citizens have been tweeting and sharing -- approvingly -- Vladmir Putin's infamous quote on dealing with Chechen terrorists, via social media, including Sina Weibo:

"We are going to pursue terrorists everywhere. If they are in the airport, we will pursue them in the airport. And if we capture them in the toilet, then we will waste them in the outhouse."

A search for "Putin" and "toilet" on Sina Weibo brings up more than 344,000 results -- and most relate to terrorism.

Nonetheless, despite the consensus that the motives of the attackers shouldn't be aired, there's also an underlying, uneasy feeling that anger toward the terrorists could translate into violence against the Uighurs. Tensions between the Han Chinese majority and many of Xinjiang's Uighurs are longstanding and increasingly violent. Already, there's some evidencethat anger about the attacks is turning against the Uighur community more broadly.

For China's leaders, this, too, is as unwelcome as a discussion of the terrorists' motives. Thus on Tuesday morning, People's Daily, the Communist Party's official mouthpiece newspaper, tweeted a carefully-worded caution to its followers on Sina Weibo:

"Don't allow your anger at the terrorists to be bent into hostility toward an ethnic group; don't respond to the violence by discriminating against a people."

It's good advice that if followed might at least help reduce ethnic tensions in China, regardless of whether or not they lead to violence and dissent.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net