The Chinese howling about how Westerners are portraying Saturday night’s horrific slaughter at the Kunming train station have a point: It’s pretty hard not to call an unprovoked attack by 10 black-clad, sword-wielding assailants on a crowd of innocent civilians -- in which 29 victims died and 143 were wounded -- anything but a terrorist attack. I’ll wager that a similar massacre in, say, a Tucson, Arizona, mall would not have been tut-tutted as a “terrible and senseless act of violence,” which is how a U.S. embassy statement described the Kunming tragedy.
Still, Chinese might want to think twice before they start adopting the U.S.’s politically charged, post-Sept. 11 enthusiasm for labeling terrorists and terror attacks. Painting with a broad brush hasn’t helped Beijing quell an upsurge of violence in restive Xinjiang province thus far, and it isn’t likely to solve the problem at hand.
Authorities were quick to blame Muslim Uighur separatists from Xinjiang for the Kunming attack. While they haven’t offered proof or brought forward the one assailant captured by police (four others were shot dead), the claim is plausible. Previous attacks that have taken place in Xinjiang itself have also involved machete-wielding killers, though none have shown this degree of coordination.
The Chinese regime has tagged Uighur separatists as “terrorists” at least since Sept. 11, 2001, when Beijing sought to link long-running tensions in Xinjiang to the newly sexy “war on terror.” The discovery of several Uighur men in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion bolstered China’s claims. Some of the fighters were indeed looking for insurgent training; others may have been traveling through the country on their way to the Middle East.
But of the 22 Uighurs who landed up in Guantanamo Bay, U.S. officials eventually determined none had any real links to al-Qaeda or the Taliban leadership. Indeed, more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, concrete ties between Uighur extremists and the global jihadist movement are hard to corroborate. One Pakistan-based insurgent group, the Turkestan Islamic Party, has tried to claim credit for a whole slew of bombings in China in recent years that have been conclusively traced to other culprits. Doubts have similarly been cast on the group’s claims that its followers are now training and fighting with Sunni radicals in Syria.
That’s not to say that groups like TIP and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement -- the umbrella organization Beijing blames for most Uighur attacks, including the one in Kunming -- aren’t dangerous. Video footage showed one of the assailants in a 2011 attack on Han Chinese civilians in the city of Kashgar being trained in a TIP camp in Pakistan. The group is also thought to have killed 21 Chinese border guards in an October 2012 assault. Its most destabilizing contribution to the Xinjiang unrest, though, may be the online newsletters and training videos it puts out. While few details have emerged about the series of clashes that have wracked the provinces over the past year -- killing more than 100 people, most of them Uighurs -- there are indications that some amateur insurgents have been experimenting with explosives and even homemade rocket launchers.
Uighur grievances are longstanding and well-known: Inequality in resource-rich Xinjiang is dramatic, with the best-paying jobs typically going to the Han Chinese migrants who now make up half the population. Authorities harass Uighur men for growing beards and women for wearing headscarves. Uighurs who work elsewhere in China are routinely discriminated against. At home they see little benefit from the autonomy and economic development that Beijing promises on paper.
Launching a brute “crackdown on terrorism,” as President Xi Jinping has called for, won’t solve any of those problems, and will probably only increase the appeal of groups like the TIP. The Kunming attack showed a disturbing degree of sophistication, and a new willingness to spread violence outside of Xinjiang itself. It would have taken weeks if not months to prepare. As the U.S. has discovered in dealing with its own -- admittedly quite different -- domestic terrorism problem since Sept. 11, targeted intelligence and close, established relationships between law enforcement and local populations are the most effective means of thwarting such plots.
Beijing doesn’t appear to have either in Xinjiang right now. That’s what authorities should really be worried about -- how to prevent the next attack, not what to call this one.
(Nisid Hajari is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter at @NisidHajari.)
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