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.  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.  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.  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.  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.