Within hours of Saturday's terrorist attack on Kunming railway station that left 33 people dead, the Chinese authorities had identified the alleged perpetrators: extremist Muslim separatists, ethnic Uighurs from the western province of Xinjiang.
Now they will crack down hard, as they have done before. Police have already begun rounding up Uighurs in Kunming for questioning. Four of the knife-wielding assailants were shot dead by police, another is in custody, and police say they have arrested three suspects, though others are still on the run, according to official media.
The prospects for ordinary Uighurs in Xinjiang are grim. Already they chafe under strict controls on religious expression, education and other cultural aspects of daily life, and under the close eye of the police.
For years, Western governments have privately advised Chinese officials to ease popular resentment by relaxing those controls. But Beijing is in no mood to win hearts and minds in the aftermath of a terror attack that a state newspaper dubbed China's 9/11. And, judging by the anger and shock expressed on Chinese social media, a steely approach to terrorism resonates with the public.
“Local issues and social conflicts in Xinjiang have nothing to do with terror activities,” says Li Wei, a government adviser and head of the Anti-Terrorism Research Center at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a Beijing think tank close to the security forces. “Social conflicts are irrelevant to terrorism.”
Behind Saturday’s attack and others blamed on Uighur militants “is an extremist Islamic mindset,” says Yang Shu, a Central Asia specialist at Lanzhou University in western China. “The government has to remove that mentality from peoples’ minds,” he adds.
That, Prof. Yang acknowledges, is a “very difficult task,” that will not be accomplished overnight. In the meantime, he says, quoting a Chinese saying, “cut the poisonous weeds and pull up the roots. The government’s most urgent task is to cut the weeds and stop the attacks.” Dealing with the root causes of the violence will have to wait, he says.
So far, the authorities have offered no evidence to back up the assertion that Uighurs carried out the Kunming attack. But if they are right, it bodes ill for moderates seeking to ameliorate Uighurs’ lives within the Chinese system. “This attack distracts attention from widespread (Uighur) discontent,” says Gardner Bovingdon, a Xinjiang expert at Indiana University in Bloomington. “It plays into the hands of Beijing’s argument that the problem is one of a small group of Islamic terrorists.”
A Western diplomat here said that China's tactics in confronting spreading Uighur extremism have largely been counterproductive. “The only way they can think of removing radical Islam from peoples’ minds is to beat it out of them and that will not work,” he says.
Uighurs point out that they have been subject to police sweeps and heightened surveillance both in and outside Xinjiang since last October. That month a Uighur family plowed their car through a crowd outside the Forbidden City in central Beijing and then blew themselves up, killing two bystanders too.
The increased security has not stopped attacks by Uighurs; indeed the rhythm of such incidents appears to have stepped up, according to official reports.
In the past, the government has blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement for attacks on both civilians and policemen. It has not yet blamed the Kunming assault on any group; local and foreign experts doubt that any one organization is behind the spate of attacks.
“I think it more likely that the criminals in Kunming were members of a gang,” says Yang. “That’s normally what we find in Xinjiang, not evidence of a larger organization with a leadership and a structure.”
Such “sporadic, disorganized events…are difficult for the government to control,” points out Dru Gladney, who follows Uighur affairs as a professor of anthropology at Pomona College in Claremont, Ca.
Prof. Li, the government advisor, agreed that it was hard for China to prevent future attacks, since "terrorists will take advantage of the weakest region to attack.” Even if police manage to subdue Xinjiang, other cities in China should brace for violence, he adds.
Kunming, a provincial capital in southwest China, is over 900 miles from Xinjiang and lies closer to Thailand and Vietnam than to China's western frontiers. Saturday's attack would be the deadliest Uighur-related violence since riots erupted in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi in 2009. Nearly 200 people died in sectarian clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese.
“Unfortunately,” predicts Prof. Gladney, “unless there are real and dramatic changes in policy” towards the Uighur minority, “one can only expect that there will be more of these attacks.”