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 But since the riots of 2009 this has been replaced by a common perception of Uighurs as violent terrorists.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.