I’ve always considered Kunming one of my favorite cities in China. After all, many of my relatives live in the provincial capital of southwestern China’s Yunnan province. In the past, every thought of the city brought back memories of fresh air, clear skies, easy-going people and delicious food. They don’t call Kunming the City of Eternal Spring for no reason. But last Saturday, a horrid act tainted those memories. Last Saturday, the streets of Kunming ran red with blood. Last Saturday, its people cowered in fear behind locked doors. Last Saturday, a separatist struggle largely limited to China’s distant northwest came swooping down with a vengeance.

At 9:20 p.m. local time, six men and two women clad in black stormed the crowded ticket lobby of Kunming’s train station. Brandishing swords and cleavers, they began to hack indiscriminately at bystanders, slaughtering those who could not flee. Neither the old nor the young were spared. Many were impoverished migrant workers planning to spend the night in the waiting rooms. In less than twenty minutes, the assailants killed 29 people and wounded another 143. Those numbers are sure to increase by the time of publication. Images circulating around social media show bloodstained floors and abandoned baggage left by their terrified owners. In the chaos, police managed to kill four suspects and capture one injured female. On March 3, authorities arrested the remaining three suspects, bringing an end to China’s worst case yet of domestic terrorism in the 21st century.

Authorities quickly identified the attackers as separatists from northwest China’s restive Xinjiang region. The region is of vital importance to China. It borders Mongolia, Russia, several Central Asian republics, Pakistan and India, making it a useful springboard for projecting Chinese influence abroad. [1] At one-sixth of China’s landmass, it is the country’s largest administrative division, as well as a major population safety valve for resettling Han Chinese from central China. [2] In addition, Xinjiang possesses an abundance of natural resources critical to China’s economic growth. The region produces one-third of China’s cotton and possesses the country’s largest oil and gas reserves. [3] Most of China’s uranium, significant coal deposits, as well as its nuclear weapons testing site are also located in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang is home to the Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority. Like their Tibetan counterparts to the south, Uighurs have long called for autonomy from the rest of China. I am no stranger to Xinjiang, its people and its issues. My grandparents taught chemistry at the university in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s regional capital. My father went to school and grew up alongside Uighurs. But those were different times. The last few decades have seen a surge of Han migrants to Xinjiang. Their numbers rose from 300,000 in 1953 to six million in 1990. By 2000, Han Chinese accounted for 41 percent of Xinjiang’s the population. [4] The influx of Han settlers placed massive strains on Xinjiang’s Uighurs, who view the Han as a threat to their culture and well-being. Though they benefit from affirmative action policies, the majority of Xinjiang’s Uighurs fare badly relative to their Han counterparts. There is a clear disparity between Han and Uighurs. Coupled with heavy-handed government policies, discrimination and the rise of radical Islam, calls for independence and instances of violence have steadily increased in number and scope in the last few years.

What separates the bloodshed in Kunming from previous incidents is the location. In the past, most incidents, such as the deadly 2009 Urumqi riots, took place within Xinjiang’s boundaries and far away from the rest of China. The Kunming massacre represents an escalation in the struggle for Uighur autonomy. Previous attacks outside of Xinjiang such as last year’s incident at Tiananmen Square were nowhere close to the Kunming massacre in terms of scope and magnitude.

It is unclear, however, if these attacks are the product of small cells or a larger organization. Chinese authorities have long referred to the existence of terrorist organizations such as the East Turkestan Liberation Organization and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. In 2002, the U.S. State Department placed the latter on its list of terrorist organizations for alleged connections with Al-Qaeda. But the true extent of these organizations’ capabilities is unknown. For all we know, the government may have overstated their capabilities to shield itself from criticism of its human rights abuses.

While the Kunming massacre won’t warrant a response on par with that of the United States after 9/11, China must prepare itself for future attacks. At the same time, the government and its people must find better ways to address the grievances of the Uighurs. But all of that can come at a later time. Now is the time to grieve for the dead and pray for the wounded.

1. Chung, Chien-peng. “China’s ‘War on Terror’: September 11 and Uighur Separatism.” Foreign Affairs 81.4 (2002): 8-12. JSTOR. Web. 11 October 2012.

2. Dwyer, Arienne. The Xinjiang Conflict: Uighur Identity, Language Policy, and Political Discourse. Washington: East-West Center Washington, 2005. Print. Policy Studies 15.

3. Chung, Chien-peng. “China’s ‘War on Terror’: September 11 and Uighur Separatism.” Foreign Affairs 81.4 (2002): 8-12. JSTOR. Web. 11 October 2012.

4. Dwyer, Arienne. The Xinjiang Conflict: Uighur Identity, Language Policy, and Political Discourse. Washington: East-West Center Washington, 2005. Print. Policy Studies 15.


PROSPECT Journal is collaborating with East by Southeast, a new blog focusing on China and its neighbors in Southeast Asia. As part of this collaboration, PROSPECT will be intermittently publishing articles by the East by Southeast bloggers, who all live and work in the region. Our journal is excited to bring a wider range of expert analysis of Southeast Asian affairs to our readers.

By Brian Eyler
Contributing Writer

The China-South Asia Expo opened without a hitch yesterday in Kunming despite online calls for a continuation of environmental protests outside of the Expo’s opening ceremony site. It seems protesters decided to stay home due to a combination of sticks and carrots offered by local authorities. On June 3, Kunming’s mayor announced the release of key environmental impact assessment data concerning the construction of a PetroChina oil refinery and PX chemical plant side project scheduled for construction 40 km from the city’s downtown area. Also, the excessive presence of armed and unarmed public security officers lining the city’s streets and manning the Expo site also likely turned protesters away.

What is the rationale behind the excessive security measures? What’s really at stake at the 1st China-South Asia Expo?

The Expo, a combination trade fair and high level forum for investment and trade promotion discussions between China, Southeast Asia and now South Asia, is part of China’s “Bridgehead Construction” strategy to establish Kunming and Yunnan province as a gateway between China and its neighbors to the south and west. A smoothly running Expo not only will seal multilateral agreements and high-value business deals that will streamline regional trade and investment, but it will also guarantee the continuation of soft-budget infrastructure development projects sponsored by Beijing to Kunming and Yunnan province that are part and parcel of the “Bridgehead” strategy.

The event is critically central to China’s plans for regional economic integration, so much so that Premier Li Keqiang, coming off a series of trade promotion visits to South Asian countries, was purportedly scheduled to attend yesterday’s opening ceremonies. But to many a Kunminger’s disappointment, Li Keqiang didn’t show up, and Vice Premier Ma Kai was sent in his stead.

The Expo is the continuation and augmentation of the long-running Kunming Import and Export Fair with a twist due to an ongoing provincial rivalry in China. The Kunming Fair focused on trade promotion and relations with mainland Southeast Asian nations, but in 2005, Yunnan’s neighbor, Guangxi became jealously vocal toward the volume of central level funding pipelined to Yunnan for improving relations with China’s Southeast Asian neighbors as part of the bridgehead construction strategy.

The antagonism makes sense to a degree given Guangxi’s border with Vietnam and its maritime orientation toward Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. As a result, the Guangxi provincial government gained responsibility for trade and investment relations with ASEAN states and Yunnan’s responsibilities were curbed to its mainland Southeast Asian neighbors. After years of lobbying to the central government in Beijing, Yunnan’s provincial officials gained a one-up over Guangxi: a new designation as China’s gateway province to not only South Asia, but the entire Indian Ocean region including the east African coastline. Thus the China-South Asia Expo was born and designated for launch in Kunming.

The Expo grounds are open for the public to browse through mazes of booths promoting a variety of tradable goods mainly from Nepal, Pakistan, India, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam as well as China (which has the greatest representation at the Expo), but the real action is happening far from the Expo site.

Top level ministers, business leaders, and heads of industrial organizations from around the region are meeting at locations undisclosed to the public to negotiate multilateral trade agreements, sign business deals, and iron out the obstacles that currently block the flow of goods and people through the region at logistical chokepoints like China’s border nodes with Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.

On the agenda is a renewed discussion of highway and rail linkages between Yunnan and India via Myanmar and Bangladesh. This link will cut through and over the Himalayan foothills on some of Earth’s most rugged terrain. The route also will pass through Myanmar’s militarized Kachin state. India tabled the discussion of this strategic pathway in 2009, and construction is unlikely to begin any time soon.

Also on the agenda are talks to establish cross-border economic zones (CBEZs) between China (Yunnan) and Myanmar at Ruili and China (Yunnan) and Laos at Mohan/Boten. However, China’s success in establishing robust and productive CBEZs with its neighbors is extremely limited. Since 2007, both funding and political capital in both China and Vietnam has been earmarked for a CBEZ at the Hekou/Lao Cai border area in southeastern Yunnan and Vietnam’s northernmost province. Despite years of negotiations, the two sides have yet to settle on the structure and purpose of the CBEZ – they have wavered between ideas such as an export processing zone, a high technology industrial park, and Guangxi’s Commerce department chief declared at a 2011 negotiation that his vision for the zone would emulate the Eurozone. Clearly, while decision makers lack technical knowledge to solve this problem (and consistently crowd out the private sector in the process) the negotiations lose steam due to a failure to identify or fabricate a true economic purpose for the CBEZ. Tenuous diplomatic relations between Vietnam and China also contribute to the stalemate.

Will the discussions with Laos and Myanmar meet similar fates?

Conspicuously absent from the slate of Expo related meetings and discussions is participation from the civil society groups, academics, and the private sector outside of the region. Issues such as global warming, environmental degradation, food security, urbanization, and energy and water resource management are beginning to drive political agendas in both China and the region. Sustainable economic development in China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia cannot proceed forward without including discussion of these key issues and without reaching out to a broader base of stakeholders who are already deeply rooted in the region.

The ExSE blog team will continue analysis of the China-South Asia Expo throughout the weekend. The Expo concludes on Monday, June 10.

See the original post here.

Photo courtesy of