The Kunmíng violence underscores the need for a more sensitive approach to the Uighur question in China
The expansive square in front of the Id Kah Mosque, a 1,000-year-old place of worship in the heart of Kashgar, usually buzzes with activity as the sun sets on the Taklamakan desert. Worshippers, young and old, gather outside its distinctive yellow walls. The street nearby doubles as a bustling market, selling naan bread, dried fruit and lamb. The mosque is located not far from the edge of Kashgar’s old city, a sprawling maze of narrow alleyways and mud-brick houses that gives the famous Silk Road town its unique identity. For centuries, this town served as the gateway between West and East. As I walked through Kashgar’s distinctive by-lanes, I heard of the thriving links between the old kingdoms of Kashgar and India, Tibet, Central Asia and China — interactions that helped shape the rich local Uighur culture. At one point in its history, the old kingdom of Kashgar stretched its rule into parts of Ladakh, I was told. Today, there are places in Ladakh like Daulat Beg Oldi, named after a noble who once resided in Yarkand and Kashgar, still bearing signs of their old connected Silk Road histories.
Spate of attacks
When I visited the city a little less than three years ago towards the end of the holy month of Ramadan — my third visit — celebrations in the bustling old town appeared muted. Weeks earlier, the city had been rocked by two explosions, set off in minivans in a crowded pedestrian street in the new city, where most Chinese residents live. Unlike many cities in China’s far western Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, Kashgar is still overwhelmingly Uighur — although the number of Han Chinese migrants is fast increasing. Chinese — now a majority in the provincial capital Ürümqi, make up around half of Xinjiang’s population, up from only six per cent when the People’s Republic brought Xinjiang — its “new frontier” — under its control.
The explosions appeared to target Chinese residents. After one crude bomb was detonated, two men hijacked a van and drove it into a crowd of shoppers. Eight people were killed. The next day, another group of men, armed with knives, stormed into a restaurant frequented by Chinese tourists, stabbing to death its owner and four others. Four attackers were shot and killed by police. The result, a few weeks later, was a heavy security presence outside the Id Kah: around two dozen heavily armed People’s Armed Police, or paramilitary personnel, with riot gear, assault rifles and shields watched over the square — a presence, I am told, that is now permanent.
The violence in Kashgar in 2011 turned out to be the start of a string of similar incidents unfolding across Xinjiang, especially in the Uighur-dominated south, where Kashgar and Hotan are located. In August last year, 21 people were killed, including 15 police and community workers, in a clash with six people in a town in Bachu County, also in Kashgar prefecture. The six were later identified by state media as members of a group that was “planning to launch terrorist activities,” similar to the one in 2011 on the pedestrian street. A number of similar small-scale incidents have been reported since, occurring intermittently in Hotan and other cities. These usually only receive little attention, described briefly in terse state media reports that shed little light on the events and generally disregarded by the wider Chinese public, in some sense accepted as par for the course in “violent Xinjiang.”
That, however, would change, following the events of March 1 in Ku¯nmíng, the provincial capital of southwestern Yunnan province, a popular tourist destination for Chinese, known as “the city of eternal spring.” In an attack that resembled earlier incidents in southern Xinjiang, a group of masked assailants, armed with knives, went on a rampage in Ku¯nmíng railway station. Eight masked men and women, all dressed in black, moved quickly and quietly, stabbing at will, leaving a trail of blood, panic and horror. Armed with long knives, they appeared to be highly trained, according to witness accounts. They inflicted deadly cuts, often attacking their victims in similar, precise ways. The attackers appeared unfazed when armed police were deployed: one marched straight into a shower of bullets unleashed by police, a witness said. Four attackers were killed, and one injured woman assailant was captured. Three others suspected of involvement in the attack were detained. The attack left 29 people killed, and came as a shock to Chinese authorities, being the first of its kind to take place outside Xinjiang. The only similar incident of this kind was last year, when, in a strikingly similar repeat of the Kashgar attack, a jeep was driven by three Uighurs into a crowd in the heart of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Two tourists were killed.
The Ku¯nmíng attack, however, was especially significant, according to Pan Zhiping, a Chinese scholar at the official Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, who writes on terrorism and has advised the government. “The attack was well organised,” he said in an interview. “Ku¯nmíng is a long way from Xinjiang. The attackers this time were well trained and brutal.” The police were unprepared. It took them 30 minutes to mount an organised response, by which time 29 people were killed and more than a hundred injured. “Without intelligence,” Mr. Pan said, “you cannot predict such things could happen in Yunnan. And such intelligence is really hard to obtain.”
He suspects the involvement of the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a banned group whose leader is thought to be in hiding in Pakistan, near the Afghan border. While China has blamed most incidents on the ETIM, there has been little clear evidence of their capabilities of carrying out attacks in China. In the past, exiled Uighur groups have suggested that every act of unrest in Xinjiang, even those stemming from local protests, has been blamed on the ETIM to justify harsh responses.
Qin Guangrong, the Communist Party chief of Yunnan, told local media that the eight Ku¯nmíng attackers had previously sought to leave China “for jihad” overseas, but were unable to do so. They had first attempted to leave from southern Guangdong, but tracked back to Ku¯nmíng when they found no way to leave. For the Chinese government, the Ku¯nmíng attack, which one Party-run newspaper described as “China’s 9/11,” bolsters its claims on the terror threat. Mr. Pan said the government should step up anti-terror crackdowns in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
Local grievances, ethnic tensions
The danger for the government is that its past responses have appeared to exacerbate, rather than improve, the on-the-ground situation in Xinjiang. A case in point was the 2009 ethnic riots in Ürümqi, where 197 people were left killed. The government blamed the riots on ETIM and separatist groups, although the nature of mass rioting suggests otherwise.
Interviews with Uighurs in Ürümqi and Kashgar suggest the local population has growing grievances with government policies, particularly involving the migration of Han Chinese. Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economist known for his outspoken views, has documented rising local unemployment, as Uighur youth remain shut out of lucrative jobs. State-run energy companies, which hold unrivalled sway over government and policy in this mineral and oil-rich region, prefer hiring Mandarin-speaking Han Chinese, he has written. Earlier this year, Mr. Tohti, a widely respected and popular voice in the Uighur community, was taken away from his Beijing home by State police. He has not been heard from since.
Other grievances involve restrictions on religion. Uighur government workers and students in many universities are banned from practising religion, whether it is fasting during Ramadan or even wearing veils. Recent “anti-veil” crackdowns in Kashgar and Hotan, cited by local officials as being driven by security reasons, have understandably angered Uighurs, seen as an assault on their culture.
Wang Lixiong is a Chinese writer who has written extensively on Tibet, Xinjiang and ethnic issues. In an article following the Ku¯nmíng attack, he warned of the danger of an official response that fuels a cycle of violence. He has argued for policymaking that takes into account the sensitivities and aspirations of Uighurs. Today’s policies “have been escalating the ethnic tension,” he warned. Following the Ürümqi riots, locals say ethnic relations have worsened, as Han and Uighur neighbourhoods retreat into themselves, leaving an increasingly segregated city.
“Continuing on that path,” Mr. Wang warned, “it will not take long to reach the point of no return where all opportunities for healthy interaction will be lost, and a vicious cycle pushes the two sides farther and farther apart.”