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On March 1 shortly after 9 pm, some 33 people were killed and 130 wounded when a group of attackers dressed in black went on the rampage in Kunming railway station. The ‘terrorists’ went around indiscriminately hacking and stabbing passers-by.
According to official sources the death toll includes 29 civilian victims killed by the attackers and four assailants shot dead by riot police.
Witnesses said that six men and two women used long knives to ‘crazily attack innocent passengers. Terrified victims ran away seeking protection.
The Legal Daily newspaper reported that the SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics unit) arrived on the scene less than 15 minutes after the beginning of the carnage and after firing 2 warning shots, Captain Zhang Jun (not his real name), the SWAT leader gunned down a masked woman who threatened him with a knife; he later shot four of the attackers in 15 seconds.
Zhang Jun recounted: “I didn’t have time to think, I shot them as fast as I could. After I shot all five, the first one, also the nearest to me, stood up again and threw a knife at me. Luckily I tilted my head.”
Beijing immediately described the incident as a ‘terrorist attack’.
A couple of days later, Xinhua, quoting Kunming officials, said that the initial investigations suggested the deadly attack was "planned and organised by separatist forces from Xinjiang."
The attack came a day ahead of the opening of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), and two days before the first session of the National People’s Congress.
The South China Morning Post commented: “It is traditionally the most politically sensitive time of the year, with the government eager to maintain stability and paint a rosy picture as thousands of delegates and government leaders head to the capital.”
The horrible Kunming massacre should be seen in the perspective of the past events in the restive Xinjiang. It is worth recalling the long series of violent happenings in the western province.
On June 25, 2009, two Uighur factory workers were killed and dozens injured in a huge brawl with Han Chinese in Shaoguan, in the southern province of Guangdong. As retaliation, thousands of Uighurs went on rampage in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital soon after security forces were sent to control the protest.
According to government’s sources, some 200 people died in the unrest and more than 1,600 were injured. Hundreds were arrested and at least 26 are sentenced to death. Uyghur sources said the number of victims could be as high as 500. ‘Ethnic separatist forces’ were blamed.
On July 18, 2011, the Chinese Police killed 20 protesters in Hotan in southern Xinjiang. The State media affirmed that the police had to fire on demonstrators who attacked a police station.
A month later, 13 Han Chinese were killed by suspected Uighur separatists.
On February 28, 2012, rioters armed with knives killed at least 10 people in Yecheng; the police was reported to have shot dead on the spot at least two attackers.
The unrest continued in 2013; for Beijing, one the most sensitive incidents (because it happened at the heart of the Capital) occurred on October 28 when three Uyghurs belonging to the same family crashed their car into Chinese tourists on the Tiananmen Square, killing two. The occupants of the car later set themselves on fire.
On December 16, 14 Uighurs and two police officers are killed in Shufu county; the attackers were once again described by the authorities as members of an extremist Islamist group.
On January 15, 2014 an eminent Uighur academic (and government critic) Ilham Tohti was detained by police and charged with separatism, carrying the death penalty. The list is indeed long.
After the Yunnan incident, the Government machinery was quick to denounce ‘terrorists’. Even pepresentatives from various religious bodies assembled during a session of the CPPCC denounced ‘terrorism’ which ‘undermined the social stability and unity’.
Losang Shandan of the Tibet Branch of the Buddhism Association of China, called on people of different nationalities to come together to fight against the violent activities and terrorists.
Who were the Kunming ‘terrorists’?
According to Radio Free Asia (RFA) the group of eight ‘has acted in desperation’. A Uyghur source in Kunming told RFA's Uyghur Service: “I believe the attackers may have been a desperate group of Uyghurs who fled Xinjiang to Yunnan and were trapped there after the Chinese authorities discovered their plans to get across to Laos."
The source added that he believes that the gang fled Xinjiang, trying to avoid police crackdown in Hanerik township (in Hotan prefecture).
It was later confirmed by Qin Guangrong, Yunnan’s Communist Party boss who declared the eight attackers travelled to his province and Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong, as they tried to leave the country: “These eight individuals originally wanted to join the jihad …They couldn’t get out at Yunnan so tried to get out in other places, but they also couldn’t leave Guangdong, so once again they returned to Yunnan.”
Wang Lixiong, the Chinese dissident (and husband of Tibetan blogger Woeser) gives his own perception of the Kunming incident. The outspoken writer knows Xinjiang well; he travelled there nine times between 1980 and 2007.
After the Kunming attack, he wrote: “People asked how I look at the incident. The issue lies not in the incident itself but beyond it, and it has been long in the making.”
Wang quotes from his book My West China; Your East Turkestan 2007 in which he argues that the name ‘Xinjiang’ itself shows where the problem lies. He asks: “What is Xinjiang? Its most straightforward meaning is ‘new territory’. But for the Uighurs, how could the land possibly be their ‘new territory’ when it has been their home and their ancestors’ home for generations. It is only a new territory for the occupiers.”
Wang Lixiong adds: “The Uighurs don’t like to hear the name 'Xinjiang' because it is itself a proclamation of an empire’s expansion, the bragging of the colonists, and a testimony of the indigenous people’s humiliation and misfortune. Even for China, the name 'New Territory' is awkward.”
He rightly asks that if Beijing claims that Xinjiang has belonged to China ever since ancient times, why call it ‘new territory’?
One often makes a comparison between India and China. But here Beijing has many lessons to learn from India if it wants to solve the ‘terrorist’ issue in Xinjiang.
Whether it is Tibet, where the local population rarely uses violence, but remains frustrated by the Central policies or in Xinjiang where the temptation to use violence is stronger (the proximity with Pakistan making things worse), Beijing has utterly failed in its so-called minority strategy.
The circle of violence in Xinjiang makes it all the more difficult for the leadership in Beijing to tackle the New Dominion’s issue.
Patience and wisdom are required; it is however not the forte of the Communist Party of China.