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What to Make of the Attack in Kunming


Deng Wei, his wife and 8-month-old baby were having dinner in a little restaurant in an alleyway next to this city's main train station Saturday night when a man and a woman, both in black, came striding by, clutching large knives.

"They were headed toward the station, and I decided to follow them, at a distance. They began slashing people, and when they passed the police kiosk on the corner of the square, the officers did nothing to stop them," Deng, 26, recalled Sunday in front of the station. "People began screaming. It was chaos."

The attackers charged into an open-air pavilion used as a waiting area, wordlessly plunging their knives into people at random, Deng and other witnesses said. At least eight more attackers followed, rushing into the ticket sales office and cutting down people as they queued, leaving victims lying in pools of blood on the floor.

The government quickly labeled the attack a "terrorist attack," blaming Uighur separatists from Xinjiang and vowing to deal harshly with the perpetrators. According to news reports on Monday, four attackers were killed on the scene and the remaining three were arrested this morning.

While attacks such as these have taken place with increasing frequency in Xinjiang, mostly against police stations, this is the first large-scale attack outside of Xinjiang.

Many outside of China (and probably many Chinese as well) are probably puzzled by the violence, since China is usually considered a place that is relatively free of ethnic tensions and thus safe from these types of attacks. Unfortunately, something like this only serves as a reminder that serious tensions are percolating through society, and none is perhaps more explosive than the ethnic divide between the Uighur and the Han.

Anyone seeking to understand the roots of this conflict would do well to read the following piece, "The Strangers: Blood and Fear in Xinjiang," which describes what life is like for Uighurs in China, and giving an excellent overview of the history of the tensions:

As its name, which literally means "New Frontier," suggests, Xinjiang was barely and rarely under Chinese control for most of the empire's history; it was not until the Qing conquests of 1745 that it fell under imperial administration, and even then it was left largely to its own devices.

Other minorities, like the Mongols and the Hui, scythed their way into China's history books, whether as rulers, raiders, or rebels. Whatever other identities they have, their history is tied up with China's as much as Ireland's is with England. The Uighur were, and are, marginal. It is one of the reasons why the recent attempts to grandfather in a continuous Chinese presence are both absurd and deeply resented.

The People's Liberation Army's "triumphant march" across Xinjiang in 1949, defeating Uighur and Kazakh "rebels," introduced the Han to Western China for good. Older Han who spent time in Xinjiang in the 1950s through the 1970s are often nostalgic for what they see as a time of joint prosperity. "We got on very well," remarked Ren, a Beijinger in his early eighties sent by the government to work and settle in Karamay, in Xinjiang, in the 1950s. "We learned some of the language, we had lots of Uighur friends, we used to go and eat in each other's houses I think the problems now are just caused by a few people."

Today, Uighur-Han ethnic relations are the most bitter in China. On the Uighur side, the reasons are obvious; as they see it, the Han are occupiers, invaders, and despoilers.

As they say, read the whole thing!

If you're wondering how to pray in regard to this situation, here are some suggestions:

  1. For the victims and their families.
  2. For the Uighur community in Kunming (and other cities), that they will not experience a backlash.
  3. For Christians (both Chinese and foreign) to have opportunities to speak comfort and hope where there is neither.

More resources on Xinjiang and Ethnic Tensions:

Are Ethnic Tensions on the Rise in China? (China File)

The Silk Road of Pop (Smoke Signal Projects)

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio