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.


By Michelle Bulterys
Staff Writer

The Yi ethnic minority of almost 8 million people spans out across Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou in southwest China. Its complex and rich culture has been kept a secret for generations. For years, the Chinese government noted the Yi to have just two languages; but a closer look showed that those two languages further distinguished into eighteen exclusively intelligible languages. The Yi’s footprints may have been hidden, but they haven’t been erased. Such a rich culture should be celebrated, and what better way than through photographs?

Not only is Yi’s culture unique, but so is its HIV/AIDS footprint. Globally, the most common mode of HIV/AIDS transmission is still through sexual intercourse. However, among the Yi Minority nearly 80 percent of new HIV/AIDS infections are the result of drug injections, which is high when compared to the global average of only 10 percent.

My time spent in Zhaojue has shown me that HIV/AIDS is much more than a medical problem—it is a social problem. One of the many challenges of global health is implementing education, diagnosis, and treatment appropriately into the specific culture at hand.

Her eyes had seen so much, maybe too much, for one lifetime. Xing tells me of the many children that she had lost to HIV/AIDS due to injecting drug use. The moment the methadone clinic opened in Zhaojue, Xing moved in downstairs as a cleaner to be in the presence of people trying to cure themselves of heroin addictions. When I asked to take a picture of her, she ran into her one-bedroom home and said to take pictures of the children because she wasn’t pretty enough for the camera. But in her foreseeable curiosity, she poked her head out and asked for one photograph.

The challenge of HIV/AIDS has shifted. Before it was the challenge of developing a treatment, but now it is the challenge of distributing and properly implementing treatment to those in need. Inaccurate use of Anti-retro Viral Treatment (ART) causes resistance to the effects of the medicine. The doctors of the clinic proudly informed us of an increase in mothers arriving for prenatal testing from one in 2012 to 60 in 2013. This curious boy looked out the window as his mother received her HIV/AIDS treatment. She was one of the many mothers to receive treatment early in her pregnancy, which ultimately saved her son.

In the Mother and Child Hospital, a father waited anxiously beside his 3-year-old daughter for the doctor to return with her records. The mother of the child recently passed away from HIV/AIDS, and the child has been infected with the disease since birth. To this day, the Yi remain traditional in their birthing practices, as 30 percent of births are still performed at home. By increasing the number of hospital births, more mothers can be tested and receive treatment earlier in their pregnancies when it is most critical. After checking the child’s vitals and speaking privately with the father for an hour, the doctor comes outside to tell us the girl would not survive the month.

At age 6, this young girl is often left alone to be in charge of her family’s small restaurant. Her maturity and intellect are those of an adolescent, while her petite size and undeveloped strength challenge her in the kitchen. A week before this photo was taken, a boiling pot of oil had fallen on her foot. She sits outside of the restaurant, alone, with sleeves damp from tears.

The young and old of the Yi minority are often the only people on the streets of Zhaojue. This picture represents the youth looking up to the elders for guidance and wisdom, a characteristic that has kept the Yi culture alive through the generations.

This gentleman was the owner of the fruit stand across the street. He was notorious throughout town for being undefeated in Chinese checkers.

Two young boys play on exercise machines in the local courtyard.

Like in many Chinese communities, the grandparents are the sole caretakers of the children. Rice porridge was served as little entertainment for this boy, and he quickly swallowed two hefty bites to his grandmother’s delight before running off with his action figures. His sister’s impatience continued to display in her eyes until her hunger was finally satisfied with the remaining porridge.

This picture was taken in one of the many traditional Yi clothing stores in Zhaojue. This boy and his sister struggled to hold in their laughter in the presence of a foreign girl dressed in traditional clothing.

Many of the Yi minority disregard Chinese regulations, in particular the “One-Child” policy. I met these three siblings while in line at the grilled potato stand. After staring at me and whispering amongst each other, they asked me if I had ever seen a certain movie. When I admitted that I hadn’t seen the movie, they ran to the closest moped, climbed upon it in unison, and posed for a picture. I later found out that the movie was the Chinese version of Die Hard.