« | Home | »

After Kunming

Tags: |

On 1 March, a group of men and women armed with knives and machetes killed 29 people and injured 130 at the railway station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in south-west China. Nothing like this has happened in China in recent memory. Protests and riots are far from uncommon, but deliberate, co-ordinated attacks aimed at causing widespread fear and major loss of life are almost unknown. Still, as soon as the news from Kunming came through, social media were full of speculation that the attack was carried out by Uighurs from Xinjiang.

When I first went to Xinjiang, in 2001, the main stereotype of Uighurs amongst Han Chinese people was that they led happy, colourful lives full of singing and dancing. But since the riots of 2009 this has been replaced by a common perception of Uighurs as violent terrorists. When the Chinese government compared last weekend’s attacks to 9/11 and blamed ‘separatists’ from Xinjiang, who had ‘launched deadly attacks over the past months, years and decades’, no one was surprised.

The police shot four of the attackers dead at the scene; four others have been arrested. The authorities have so far revealed little about who they were, other than that their leader was called Abdurehim Kurban, a Uighur name. They have not accused any particular organisation, but claim to have found a jihadist flag on the scene. The Communist party chief of Yunnan was quoted as saying that the group had ‘originally wanted to participate in jihad’ outside China, but were unable to leave the country so carried out the attack in Kunming instead. These remarks have since been deleted from websites, and there is as yet no evidence to support the assertion. There is, however, a parallel claim that the Uighurs were trying to leave the country to escape persecution in Xinjiang.

Uighurs have been blamed for a bus bombing in Beijing in 1997, explosions on two buses in Kunming in 2008, and an explosion in Tiananmen Square in October last year. In all these cases, the evidence for the involvement of ‘separatists’ from a Xinjiang-based terror group is far from conclusive; the Kunming attacks are no different in this respect.

The absence of proof has not prevented many Western media outlets from describing the attack as a possible ‘escalation’ in the conflict between the authorities and Uighurs who oppose them. But the notion of escalation presupposes a co-ordinated campaign waged by Uighurs against the Chinese state, which there’s very little evidence for. The circumstances of many violent incidents in Xinjiang remain unclear, but most of those that have been investigated appear to have been triggered by specific grievances against local officials, such as the closing of a mosque, or the murder of a child. It certainly isn’t implausible that the Kunming attacks are the work of Uighurs with a grievance against the state; but it’s premature to draw this conclusion.

Yet in China the issue of proof may already be irrelevant. The Kunming attacks seem bound to deepen anti-Uighur prejudice among Han Chinese. There are prominent figures urging caution and restraint, such as Han Han, a popular writer, who said he hoped ‘we don’t place our hatred on an entire ethnicity or an entire religion.’ The comment was shared more than 200,000 times on social media. But this won’t be enough to balance the anger at the attacks. The government in Guangxi province has asked residents to report any Uighurs they see in the area.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • UncleShoutingSmut on Goodbye, Circumflex: Unfortunately this post is likely to leave readers with a very partial idea of what is going on. Firstly, there is no "edict": all that has happened i...
    • martyn94 on The Price of Everything: If it's a joke at anyone's expense, it's surely at the expense of any super-rich who take it seriously. I used to skim it occasionally as a diversion ...
    • mideastzebra on Swedish-Israeli Tensions: Avigdor Liberman was not foreign minister November 2015.
    • lars hakanson on Exit Cameron: Europe will for good reason rejoice when the UK elects to leave. The country has over the years provided nothing but obstacles to European integration...
    • Michael Schuller on Immigration Scandals: The Home Office is keen to be seen to be acting tough on immigration, although I'm not sure that the wider project has anything to do with real number...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement