BEIJING – China’s President Xi Jinping ordered a crackdown on “violent terrorist activities” after 33 people died when knife-wielding assailants rampaged through a train station in a southwestern city Saturday.
Local authority officials in Kunming said evidence at the scene showed it was a terrorist attack orchestrated by Xinjiang separatist forces, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported. An exiled group promoting human rights for the region’s minority people, the Uighur, called for a transparent investigation.
The assault, days before the annual meeting of the legislature in Beijing, highlights growing social unrest amid widening inequality and increasing tensions between the state and some ethnic groups including the mostly Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang. The ruling Communist Party last November set up a state committee to better coordinate security issues as it faces dissent at home and expands its military reach.
“The problem in China is that there’s no mechanism for people who think they are victims of discrimination to seek redress,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “There is no dialogue between the authorities and those with grievances, so they resort to violence, and from official reports it appears the frequency and intensity of those outbursts is increasing. That’s why they need to set up this committee, they need to up the ante.”
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which started at about 9:20 p.m. when more than 10 people dressed in black and armed with knives stormed through the square and ticket hall of the railway station, Xinhua said.
Twenty nine people died in the attack, according to Xinhua. Four masked assailants were killed by the police, one was captured and the others are still being hunted, it said. The injured were taken to more than 10 local hospitals for treatment, the news agency said.
Kunming is the capital of southwest Yunnan province, home to at least 25 ethnic minority groups who number 15.5 million in total, about a third of the provincial population, according to the local government website. The city is about 2,496 km southeast of the Xinjiang capital Urumqi.
“We demand a transparent investigation,” Dolkun Isa, chairman of the executive committee of the Munich, Germany-based World Uighur Congress, said in an emailed statement. “Terrorism charges brought immediately after the event creates doubts among the Uighur community in the absence” of such a probe, he said.
Chinese authorities have tried to link several incidents to terrorism, including a car explosion in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square last year, Isa said, adding that the congress will put out a formal statement when it has collected more information about the incident.
Meng Jianzhu, the nation’s top security official, and Guo Shengkun, minister of public security, went to Kunming to direct the investigation, Xinhua said.
“This brutal attack on defenseless, innocent people by violent terrorists devoid of conscience exposes their inhuman and anti-social nature,” Xinhua quoted Meng as saying. “We must mobilize all resources and adopt all means to break this case,” he said.
In an English-language commentary Sunday, Xinhua journalist Gui Tao called the assault China’s “9-11,” a reference to the hijacking of four airlines and the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, which left more than 3,000 people dead or missing in the world’s top superpower and sparked a manhunt that lasted nearly a decade.
The attack in Kunming “was an issue of terrorism with links to the terrorist forces out of the country,” Yin Zhuo, director of the Expert Consultation Committee of the Navy division of the People’s Liberation Army, was quoted in a separate Xinhua report as saying. Yin is a member of the country’s top advisory body, the CPPCC, which starts its annual meeting in Beijing Monday. The National People’s Congress opens Wednesday.
“The party thinks there is a close connection between internal security and external threats,” said Lam. “There is a well-entrenched conspiracy theory that the most serious de-stabilizing forces are backed by the West.”
Violent terrorist attacks have been increasing since 2009 and have become the biggest security threat to Xinjiang, Xinhua said Sunday. Some 190 terrorist attacks were recorded in the region in 2012, increasing by “a significant margin from 2011,” it said, citing the regional public security bureau.
Police last month killed eight people who attacked a convoy of patrol cars in Xinjiang’s Wushi county, according to Tianshan, a website run by the local government press office. In January six rioters who were planting explosives were shot dead, Tianshan reported that month.
Tensions between the state and the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang, a resource-rich autonomous region, have spilled over to other parts of the country.
In October, a sport-utility vehicle plowed into a crowd at Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing and burst into flames, killing the three occupants and two bystanders. Meng, the top security official, said the people in the SUV had links to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant Uighur group blamed in the past for violence in Xinjiang.
China is also arresting activists who have challenged the government on issues ranging from disclosure of officials’ assets to the environment and the rights of minorities.
Authorities have detained Ilham Tohti, a Uighur academic, on suspicion of committing crimes and violating laws, Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman said last month. His lawyer, Li Fangping, said Tohti was formally arrested last month on charges of “splitting the country.”
Chinese citizens are taking increasingly desperate measures to draw attention to their grievances. Last week, a man set fire to a bus in the southern city of Guiyang, killing six and injuring 35, to “get even” with society, Xinhua reported last week, citing the local authority. In July, a wheelchair-bound man detonated a home-made bomb at Beijing airport after failing to get compensation for his injuries after a conflict with public security guards.