China’s Uighur Terror Attack

Masked attackers stabbed over 160 people at a train station over the weekend in Kunming—and Beijing is blaming the violence on Uighurs from its restive Xinjiang province.

Kunming, in southwest China, is one of the country’s most pleasant provincial capitals, a sleepy city known for its sunny climate and rich horticultural life. But on Saturday night, it played host to a gruesome act of terror: At least ten masked individuals, dressed in black, entered the city’s main train station and began stabbing passengers with knives and daggers. Within minutes, the police arrived and killed four assailants and captured a fifth, while three others were captured Monday. So far, 29 victims have lost their lives in the incident, while over 140 have sustained injuries.

In a country where violent incidents have become more common, the Kunming attack was nevertheless a major shock. Terrorism is not unheard of in China—two years ago, a series of random knife attacks at elementary schools unnerved the nation—but few have involved such apparent coordination. And the choice of the train station—a crowded public space full of people purchasing tickets—clearly reflects a motive to inflict as many casualties as possible.

Within hours, Xinhua, China’s official news service, reported that the attackers were ethnic Uighurs from Xinjiang, the country’s far-western region. This came as little surprise. A Central Asian people who speak a Turkic language and practice Sunni Islam, Uighurs have long chafed under what they perceive as Beijing’s discriminatory governance of the region, and have periodically engaged in violent struggle against the Chinese state. And in recent years, the number of high-profile attacks has increased: In 2009, riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, claimed over 200 lives, most of which belonged to Han Chinese, and set off rounds of retaliatory fighting. Last July, a group of Uighurs attacked police positions in Lukqun, a small Xinjiang city, leading to 35 deaths. And, most spectacularly, a Jeep driven by a Uighur family exploded near Tiananmen Square, China’s most important public space, and killed five in an apparent terrorist act.

Sixty-five years after founding the People’s Republic of China, relations between Beijing and Xinjiang’s Uighur population remain poor. Unlike most of China’s 55 other ethnic minority groups, many Uighurs—who enjoyed de facto independence in the pre-Communist era—still regard the Chinese state as something of a colonial power. Beijing, on the other hand, sees itself as driving the development of a poor, perennially backward region, and regards Uighur discontent as the result of influenced by outside extremists—much as the Communist Party blames the Dalai Lama for discontent in Tibet, despite his absence from the region since 1959.

Essentially, Beijing’s policy toward the Uighurs—as well as Tibetans—reflects the government’s general strategy for maintaining power in China: As long as the economy continues to grow, people will put aside political grievances in order to focus on material well-being. But this calculus, according to Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch, is flawed “if target groups have no say in the design and implementation of these policies and continue to face everyday discrimination and no meaningful political representation.”

To add to the problem, Uighurs who oppose Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang have few avenues for expressing discontent. Last month, Chinese officials arrested Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economics professor based in Beijing and a moderate critic of the government, and charged him with inciting separatism. Tohti, who has never advocated independence for China’s Uighurs, now likely faces a lengthy prison sentence.

Beijing will no doubt prosecute those responsible for the Kunming attack without mercy and, most likely, will redouble its scrutiny of its Uighur population. But, given the growing tension in the region, a fundamental reassessment of China's Xinjiang policy is more necessarily than ever. Will this happen? Probably not anytime soon. Last month, Zhu Weiqun, a chairman of the ethnic and religious affairs committee of a top government body, wrote that China “had time on its side” in respect to its ethnic regions, and that “more and more Westerners will have an understanding of Tibet and Xinjiang that better accords with reality.”

Two days after Kunming, this possibility seems more remote than ever.