Kunming knife attacks show China has a terrorism problem too

The knife attacks on innocent travellers at the Kunming railway terminal was an act of terror like anything the West has seen, Patrick Brown writes. There is no point trying to gloss over that fact.

Its past crackdown on the Muslim Uighur minority hasn't helped

People light candles in front of wreaths outside Kunming railway station following Saturday's knife attack, one of the worst acts of mass murder in recent Chinese history. (Wong Campion / Reuters)

After decades of reporting on conflicts all over the world, I am not easily taken aback.

But Saturday's attack at the Kunming railway station in western China was more shocking, even viewed from the other side of the world, than many such incidents I have witnessed up close.

Compared with, say, placing a bomb, the act of walking up to strangers and slashing their throats has an ugly intimacy that is nothing short of appalling.

In this case, a group of men and women dressed in black strode up to the station, pulled out knives, meat cleavers and swords and began methodically slashing and stabbing their way through the crowd.

Photographs of the station concourse show the dead and wounded lying in pools of blood, amidst a litter of dropped luggage. In the 20 minutes or so before police gained control, 29 people were killed and 143 were injured.

This was China's first terror attack with mass casualties in modern times. Within hours, the official media were using the phrase "China's 9/11" to describe what had taken place.

Indeed, the perpetrators brought the violence of their cause to a crowded train terminal in a peaceful town far from where they came from with the message that nowhere, and no one, in China is safe.


Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, one of my favourite places in China. It has a mild climate, a laid-back atmosphere, gorgeous scenery and incredible diversity.

Police say the eight attackers, six men and two women, came from the troubled province of Xinjiang, some 2,500 kilometres away. Four were shot dead, the others have been captured.

A man walks by a pool of blood in Kunming railway station, Yunnan province, following the deadly knife and sword attack on Saturday that left 29 people dead. (Reuters)

Xinjiang, the name means "new frontier," is in China's far west, and is home to the country's Uighur minority, Muslims who speak a language related to Turkish.

It is an area larger than Alberta and British Columbia combined, and was incorporated into the Chinese empire in the eighteenth century.

But relations between the Uighurs and China's Han majority have always been uneasy, and resentment over Beijing's heavy-handed control of religion, culture and language has been exacerbated by the breakneck economic development of recent years.

In fact, business opportunities have attracted so many immigrants from other parts of China that Uighurs are close to being outnumbered in their own home.

In 2009, 200 people were killed in ethnic riots between Uighurs and Chinese, and the province has been essentially locked down with crackdown after crackdown ever since.

"War on Terror"

In Xinjiang, even moderate dissent brings harsh punishment. Ilham Tohti, often described as a mild-mannered academic who teaches economics at a university in Beijing, was detained in January and charged with "inciting separatism" for his criticism of government policies in Xinjiang.

A movement for Xinjiang independence, which prefers the name East Turkestan for the region, has had a tiny presence in some neighbouring Central Asian countries for decades.

But it has never made a credible claim for any significant attack.

A larger exile group, the World Uighur Congress, opposes what it considers the occupation of Xinjiang, but rejects violence.

It is certainly true that some Uighurs have been fighting as jihadis in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and that awareness of Islamic fundamentalism has become more widespread in Xinjiang through the internet and DVDs.

But until now the Chinese government has offered little evidence to support its repeated claims that it is fighting its own "War on Terror" in Xinjiang.

In fact, most incidents reported in the official media as terrorism seem to have been local violence over local grievances, rather than part of a coordinated movement in support of independence.

The crackdown to come?

Always sensitive to the way events in China are portrayed in the rest of the world, Chinese commentators and officials have often been outraged by efforts, like the last few sentences I have written, to explain the background to the attack in Kunming.

Any mention of Chinese repression in Xinjiang is seen as an attempt to justify acts like this.

Uigher women grieve for their men who they claim were taken away by the Chinese authorities after a protest in Urumqi in July 2009. (Associated Press)

In this case, though, I am more sympathetic to Beijing's criticism of the West for its reluctance to use the word "terrorism" to describe what happened.

In its response to Kunming, the U.S. State Department belatedly acknowledged that it was a terror attack, after earlier condemning the incident only as "a senseless act of violence." The use of such standard police jargon, which absurdly suggests the existence of contrasting sensible violence, seems particularly objectionable in this instance.

The murder and maiming of close to 200 civilians in order to spread fear and provoke reprisals, presumably in the hope of creating more radical supporters, seems to me to deserve the word terrorism, without the weasel quotation marks adopted by many Western media.

What's more, the attack happened on the eve of the Chinese Communist Party's biggest set piece of the year, the annual parliament being held in Beijing for the next two weeks.

One of the oddities of the event, which brings together thousands of delegates from all over the country, is that members of China's 56 ethnic minorities are expected to wear their traditional costumes.

Over the years there's been a tendency to embellish and exaggerate these outfits so that the Great Hall of the People takes on the air of a Star Trek convention.

The image the party likes to convey of colourful minorities happily singing, dancing and living in harmony with the majority Han Chinese will be hard to sustain when the leaders' speeches will undoubtedly be laden with promises to crack down with an iron fist in Xinjiang.

A bad situation could easily become worse for the people of Xinjiang, for Uighurs living in other parts of China, already victims of negative stereotyping, and for Chinese civilians who have become targets.

China is right to demand that an act of terrorism like this should be recognized as such by the rest of the world, but in regarding the iron fist as the best and only response it is following a well-trodden path to a dead end.                            


Patrick Brown

Eye on Asia

Former CBC correspondent Patrick Brown has reported from world capitals and dusty backwaters for over 30 years, with a particular emphasis on Asia, having been based at different times in Bangkok, Delhi and, most recently, Beijing. He now splits his time between Canada and China as an independent documentary-maker. Follow Patrick Brown on Twitter: @truthfromfacts


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?