The Attack in Kunming: Uyghurs and Beijing’s Response

On Saturday, a group of knife-wielding assailants killed at least 29 people and wounded 143 others at a train station in Kunming, China. China’s state media described the attack as “an organized, premeditated violent terrorist attack” pointing to separatists from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region who use the name East Turkestan to describe their homeland.

The Uyghurs are a Muslim ethnic minority group who have historically chafed under Beijing’s rule. Travelling through Xinjiang, their resentment is palpable. Sentiment ranges from outright separatism to a desire for greater autonomy, as well as access to jobs and the preservation of culture, religion, and language in the face of a majority Han Chinese influx and state controls.

These sentiments have at times boiled over. Ethnic rioting in 2009 caused 200 deaths in Xinjiang. Other incidents such as a jeep crashing in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square last October killing five people was also attributed to Uyghur separatists bent on violence. Indeed, Beijing has repeatedly claimed that some Uyghurs have turned to terrorism, most notably the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) with links to Al Qaeda. Nonetheless, longstanding skepticism exists about Beijing’s characterization of the extent of the Uyghur terrorist threat.

In this context, the Kunming attack is significant for three reasons: its seemingly premeditated nature, civilian targets; and location outside of Xinjiang and the capital, Beijing, in a third locale with troubling implications across the country for already fraught Han-Uyghur relations. Although the details of the attack and the perpetrators’ motives remain unclear, the police has reportedly fatally shot four of the assailants, captured one, and is searching for the remainder. China’s Foreign Ministry has stated today that “East Turkestan” flags were discovered at the site.

In response, Beijing will likely pursue a dual-track response at home and abroad. Domestically, it will clamp down in Xinjiang as it has in the past with one of its periodic yan da (strike hard) campaigns. It will also likely start further scrutinizing Uyghur communities living outside Xinjiang in China. Two new angles of such a crackdown are the role of the newly constituted national security committee, tasked with foreign policy and domestic security, chaired by President Xi and the potentially expedited introduction of anti-terrorism laws that lawmakers in Xinjiang have been weighing to supplement existing criminal laws. A heavy handed crackdown will no doubt fuel Uyghur alienation; whether it leads to reprisal attacks remains to be seen.

Internationally, China will continue to rally support for combating its “terrorist” threat. On Sunday, the UN Security Council issued a press statement that “condemned in the strongest terms the terrorist attack” in Kunming. China will also seek to expand its already robust counterterrorism relationship with Pakistan that adjoins Xinjiang and where ETIM’s leadership has, in the past, been tracked and eliminated during operations by the Pakistan Army.

Above all, the information flow relating to such a sensitive and high profile attack in China is as hazy as the air in Beijing. While nothing can justify the loss of innocent lives, separating fact from fiction will remain a challenge in accurately assessing the threat and the response in China.

Ziad Haider is Asia Director of the Truman National Security Project and the author of “Sino Pakistan Relations and Xinjiang’s Uyghurs