Protester, holding a sign urging government action, stands outside Kunming Rail Station (Alexander F. Yuan/AP)

Protester holding a sign urging government action, stands outside Kunming Rail Station (Alexander F. Yuan/AP)

Kunming, a major city in southwest China known for its year-around warmth, has recently experienced cruel terrorist killings, which targeted  civilians. On the evening of March 1, 2014, eight masked attackers armed with long knives rushed into the Kunming rail station, leaving twenty nine civilians dead and over 150 people injured. The mass stabbing constituted one of the most serious terrorist attacks in recent record. Foreign Policy has called it “a date that will likely to burn in collective memories for years to come. ” 

But this was not the first incident.  As in previous terrorist incidents, the attackers were quickly identified by the Chinese government as separatists from the northwestern Xinjiang region. They were reportedly Uighur, the largest predominantly Muslim ethnic group in the region. Four perpetrators were shot dead, the one female perpetrator was captured at the scene, and three others were detained two days later, according to China’s newswire, Xinhua. Later reports from Chinese officials stated that the attack was launched after the group’s attempt to leave the country via Yunnan had failed. But with limited information released so far, the real motivations of the unprecedented attack remain blurry.

There is always a danger of oversimplifying such a shocking terrorist attack with many symbols , leading to unfounded conclusions. The meaning, causes, and impact of a specific attack is usually more complicated than many critics believe, but it is still inevitable to ask: why is this time different?

The Controversial Ethnic policy 

2009 protests in Urumqi (AP)

2009 protests in Urumqi (AP)

The brutal killing, although by individual Uighur terrorists, casts a new cloud  over the relationship between Han Chinese and Uighur. More than 10 million Uyghur live in Xinjiang today, constituting 50 percent of the total population. Recent years have seen a drastic rise in ethnic conflicts; the most serious of which occurred in July 2009 in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. This attack left over 300 Han Chinese and Uighur dead. Like previous incidents, the terrorist attack in Kunming ignited questions about government’s standing on ethic-minority issues.

There are long-standing debates about Chinese minority policies. According to Chinese laws, Xinjiang and Tibet, together with a few other regions inhabited by ethnic minorities, enjoy regional governance autonomy – but the autonomy is by and large eroded by substantial state government containment of territory separating activities and other religious rebellions. Although efforts have been made to facilitate the economic development of the region and to improve the living standards of the ethnic minorities, accusations of the discrimination and marginalization of these ethnic groups have been strong. The economic status gap between Uighur and Han Chinese has also become substantial in recent years. To make things worse, the tightening political control has invoked a strong revolt of the ethnic groups, and it has been said to infringe on the groups’ religious, legal, and political rights; which has been frequently criticized by international society.

In the aftermath of July 2009 riots, the Chinese government further hardened its stance through intensified control and crackdowns of terrorists activities in the region. Such a move, however, turned out to increase instability and lead to more violent attacks.  In 2012, there were 150 violent attacks in Xinjiang, according to police. But the events have not caught public attention due to the tight control of news by the government.

Despite the heated appeal for a fundamental reflection, it is almost impossible to see big change in China’s ethnic policies. The softening of the stance is not only unfavorable to policymakers today, but also has been considered strategically impractical. One widely accepted counter-terrorism policy among governments is that a responsive concession following terrorist activities – which may simply lead terrorists to believe that violence works, which encourages more violence. This concern has not been mitigated by recent Chinese policy makers.

Uprising Threat of Terrorism

 Vehicles travel along Chang'an Avenue as smoke raises near Tiananmen Square in Beijing October 28, 2013.  (Reuters/Staff)

Vehicles travel along Chang’an Avenue as smoke raises near Tiananmen Square in Beijing October 28, 2013.

Terrorist activities are not new to China, but previous incidents were limited to a handful of ethnic-minority regions, including Xinjiang and Tibet. The attacks targeted at innocent civilians outside of these regions have been fairly rare – with the exception of the jeep crashing attack in Tiananmen Square October 2013, which killed five people and left dozens wounded.

Echoing Tiananmen’s vehicle attack, the incident at Kunming has signaled a geographical expansion of the terrorist attacks and a shift from attacking government agencies to attacking innocent civilians. Many observers believe that these differences should be taken as a serious alert to the increasing threat of terrorism in the country.

In this regard, it is not an exaggeration to see the Kunming attack as China’s September 11th – especially because of the changes it has created in regard to the public’s attitudes toward terrorism and the country’s counter-terrorism policies. Kunming’s incident, in a cruel way, produced  a first-hand experience of terrorist violence for ordinary residents of the country.

Only a few months ago, China announced that they would establish the National Security Commission (NSC), a central coordinating entity which incorporates multiple state-level departments. Led by current President Xi Jinping, the NSC is expected to coordinate the state-level security policies and address the increasing security challenges facing the country. Counter terrorism will undoubtedly be one of the central issues for Chinese top policymakers.

There are two sides to that coin, however: the strengthening social control and security surveillance motivated by anti-terrorism policy itself will become the one of the biggest threats to civil rights, as currently being experienced by US citizens. A painful trade-off which is waiting for the Chinese people.

From many perspectives, Kunming’s attack should be seen as an unprecedented case that might reshape the picture of counter-terrorism in China. It has also confirmed the normalization and expansion of terrorist attacks facing the country; highlighting an increasing security challenge.  But at the same time, the impact of Kunming attack is disappointing in another sense – the loss of civilians’ lives may not always lead to good change. It is wrong to take the incident as a catalyst of a more fundamental turn in China’s minority policy which has been questioned again and again. It is a depressing outcome altogether.

Wang Tao, MPA '15

Written by Wang Tao, MPA '15

Wang Tao graduated from Renmin University of China with a Bachelor's degree in Economics. He previously interned as a journalist at New York Times - Beijing Bureau and Caixin Media, as well as having worked at China Policy, a Beijing-based policy research firm, as an analyst on Chinese policy. He...
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