Beijing has to address deep-seated ethnic tensions if it wants to prevent further terrorist attacks
No matter what their ethnic background or motivating reason, those who chose to slaughter innocent people as they waited for trains in China’s southwestern city of Kunming deserve to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.
In one of China’s worst terrorist atrocities of recent times, 10 knife-wielding attackers, including at least two women, killed 29 people and injured 140 others on Saturday. They began by stabbing people in a public square outside the station, then charged into the ticket hall. Most victims were stabbed just once before the assailants moved on to the next target, witnesses said.
Such action is barbaric and shocking in the extreme. It might have been motivated by deep ethno-religious-based grievances, but innocent passengers and bystanders should never be targets for such revenge.
The Chinese public and government in Beijing received deserved messages of deep sympathy and condolence from the international community. The injured and the families of the victims will hopefully receive the necessary assistance to aid their quick mental and physical recovery from the brutal attack.
Southwest Yunnan province, of which Kunming is the capital, is home to various ethnic groups, including thousands of Hui Chinese, who are Muslim. Though located far from Xinjiang, a hotbed of violent clashes between authorities and the Muslim Uighurs, Yunnan is a regional transportation hub that warrants full protection from any attack.
Yunnan is also China’s backdoor to Southeast Asia. As such, violence there raises worries over security here, notably in the Mekong sub-region.
However, the deadly attack to Kunming is not just a wakeup call for the China’s Southeast and neighbouring Southeast Asia, but also a warning to Beijing that nowhere in China is safe any longer.
In October a car carrying three people crashed and exploded in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which was crowded with tourists. The attack was freighted with political symbolism, occurring as it did beneath the portrait of Mao Zedong that hangs at the entrance to the Forbidden City. But the Kunming attack indicates that terrorists are willing to move beyond political symbolism to atrocity in order to hurt China.
Beijing should look deeply into the root causes of the terrorist attacks. Crackdowns alone are unlikely to end the problem. Police shot dead four of the Kunming assailants and arrested a fifth, a woman. They are now hunting for the rest of the gang, who reportedly donned black clothing and masks for the attack.
Security agencies quickly blamed Muslim Uighurs from restive Xinjing region for the attack. Some of the attackers could indeed be Uighur, and certainly whoever is responsible for any such attack should be appropriately punished. But Beijing must think deeply and carefully about ensuring that other innocent Uighurs obtain fair treatment according to law.
People in the northwestern Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang have maintained a culture that differs from that of the predominantly Han population. Grievances between the two cultures date back to Qing rule in the mid-17th century. Beijing, aware of the area’s cultural complexity, made the region autonomous in a bid to cool ethnic tensions. In the wake of the Kunming attack, more lessons need to be learned. All parties to the conflict must cooperate and tackle the problem at its root cause.