The attacks were as gruesome as they were unexpected. On March 1 in the leafy southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, eight people stormed a train station wielding swords and meat cleavers. Their rampage left 29 dead and 143 injured. China, meanwhile, was left to process the latest violence to highlight its intensifying bouts of ethnic unrest.
The vast majority of China’s 1.3 billion people are Han Chinese. Many of the rest, who belong to China’s 55 other ethnic groups (or “nationalities,” as the government calls them) live in its far-Western provinces — a long way, geographically and culturally, from the glittering skyscrapers and state-of-the-art commuter lines of the populous, Han-dominated eastern seaboard.
But in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, tensions between the Han and ethnic minority groups are less publicly acrimonious than in other areas. So news that civilians were murdered en masse at the city’s train station on Saturday, apparently by Uighur terrorists, sent shockwaves across China. “A lot of people are angry at terrorists and sad for those victims,” Jiajia Wang, director of the Kunming study abroad program of Vermont’s Middlebury College, said by email Wednesday. “A lot of people also emphasize that the normal Uighur people are different from zealous religious terrorists.”
The attacks clash sharply with the Chinese government’s carefully calibrated image of land-locked ethnic regions as quaint, non-threatening bastions of folk arts. An example of this myth-making can be found in Lijiang, a Yunnan city about 300 miles from Kunming whose central attraction is a kitschy and artificial “old town” that purports to reflect the traditions of the local Naxi ethnic group. Lijiang has over the last decade become a playground for middle-class Han tourists who flock to the old town — which is really more of an outdoor shopping mall — to buy Naxi-themed handicrafts and gawk at residents dressed in traditional ethnic garb.
But China has vast regions, some of them semi-autonomous, where the central government’s role in everyday life is far more controversial and confrontational. Perhaps the best-known example is Tibet, near the India border, which China invaded in the 1950s. Another restive region is Xinjiang, also in China’s far west, where many members of the Uighur ethnic minority, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group, have chafed under Han rule ever since China annexed the area in the 1880s. A handful of Uighurs have formed militant organizations, and Chinese authorities often blame Uighur separatists for attacks that break out in Xinjiang amid rising tensions there between Uighurs and Han Chinese.
In both areas, the government attempts to extinguish the most visible expressions of resistance to Chinese rule, and many Tibetans and Uighurs complain of discrimination and surveillance. This isn’t a huge surprise in a country with a one-party government that doesn’t tolerate resistance to its authority, especially when that resistance is organized. But the recent violence in Kunming has brought some of China’s simmering ethnic tensions farther out into the public eye, both domestically and abroad – tensions that the government would prefer to hide because they may hold deep political implications for the ruling Communist party.
Ever sensitive to ethnic and religious strife – not to mention its image on the global stage – the Chinese government quickly moved to play down the Kunming attacks by micromanaging coverage in state-controlled news outlets and censoring many discussion threads on social media. Chinese newspapers also criticized accounts by foreign journalists that described the attacks in the larger context of China’s broader ethnic tensions, and complained that some foreign governments had not immediately labeled the violence an act of terrorism. (The U.S. State Department eventually did, after a little prodding at a news conference.)
But as Kunming returns to normal this week, deep discussion of the March 1 incident is flourishing regardless, in online forums, public markets and dinner tables across China. For the moment it is unclear whether the attack and its aftermath will lead to more or less understanding or reconciliation between the Han Chinese and some of the country’s more prominent and outspoken ethnic-minority leaders and activists, much less how the attacks may change China’s ethnic-relations calculus in the longer term. In a speech in Beijing on Wednesday that may hint at the answer, Premier Li Keqiang vowed to crack down on terrorism while building a “peaceful China.” But that will be difficult in part because some members of ethnic minority groups see the central government as, among other things, an aggressor.