More than 100 people died last year in clashes between the police and ethnic Uighurs identified by the government as terrorists seeking independence from Beijing.
Saturday night’s attack in the southwestern city of Kunming, however, which officials attributed to Xinjiang separatists, appears to have been of an entirely different order.
The assault by more than a dozen knife-wielding men and women who killed 29 people at the train station waiting to buy train tickets, and wounded 140 more, was the most violent episode ever involving Uighurs outside Xinjiang. It illustrates that despite heightened police surveillance of suspected Xinjiang terrorists, there is little the authorities can do to prevent attacks by determined opponents, as they cannot maintain the level of security across the country that they seek to impose in Xinjiang.
“It was China’s 9/11,” said a commentary published by the Chinese state-run news agency, Xinhua. “A nationwide outrage has been stirred. Justice needs to be done and terrorists should be punished with iron fists.”
Saturday’s attack follows an incident last October in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, when three members of the same Uighur family drove a car through a crowd before blowing their vehicle up. They killed themselves and two bystanders, and injured 40.
The Chinese authorities blamed that attack on the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement.” A statement Sunday from the authorities in Kunming, the capital of the province of Yunnan, said the attack on Saturday evening, which eyewitnesses said involved a group of black-clad men and women slashing wildly at anyone within reach, was the work of “Xinjiang separatist forces.”
Western analysts say it is unclear whether ETIM actually exists. But anti-Chinese attacks, often extremely bloody, are on the rise in Xinjiang. Possession of firearms in China is illegal, and the ban is especially strictly enforced in restive areas such as Xinjiang. But the last six months of 2013 saw at least three assaults on police stations by groups of men wielding knives to deadly effect.
The band which attacked Kunming train station’s ticket hall seems to have used similar tactics, but with one crucial difference: the victims were not policemen or other agents of the state imposing Chinese rule on Xinjiang, but civilians more than a thousand miles away.
No group had claimed responsibility for the attack by Sunday evening. The timing appeared linked to Monday’s opening in Beijing of the annual session of the Chinese parliament, the highlight of China’s political calendar.
Independent reporting from Xinjiang is almost impossible; the police routinely impede and expel foreign journalists seeking to work there. But resentment against ethnic Han Chinese (China’s dominant ethnic group) is widespread in the oil-rich, largely arid province of Xinjiang, where many Uighurs complain that they are not allowed to practice their religion, nor follow their cultural customs, freely.
Harsh government control of their lives, such as restrictions on the use of their language in schools, and a colonial-style economy that keeps most local people in menial jobs while Han Chinese immigrants run businesses and the local administration, adds to frustrations.
Tensions exploded in July 2009 in anti-Han riots in which 197 Chinese died and over 1,700 were injured, according to government figures.
Since the Communist government took over Xinjiang in 1949, the proportion of Han Chinese in the province has shot up from 6.7 percent to 40.6 percent, according to official figures. The Han population now almost matches the Uighur population, after a six decades-long campaign by Beijing to settle Han in the remote region.
The Chinese government is extremely nervous about any signs of separatism in Xinjiang, and are wary of any Uighur figure around whom ethnic sentiment might coalesce. Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur intellectual, university professor and ethnic rights activist, was arrested last week and charged with “separatism,” his lawyer said. No date has been set for his trial.