BEIJING – Beijing is vowing to strike back against an unprecedented mass killing of civilians by alleged Xinjiang militants far outside their homeland, but analysts say that may merely speed up the cycle of repression and violent reprisal.
A black-clad gang of more than 10 people killed at least 29 and injured more than 140 in a stabbing spree at Kunming railway station in southwestern Yunnan province late Saturday.
China’s top security official was quickly dispatched and urged “forcible measures to crack down on violent terrorism activities,” the official Xinhua News Agency said, as the public shared horror and anger at photos of bloodied bodies scattered across the floor.
Although knife and bomb attacks occur periodically in Xinjiang, where China’s mostly Muslim Uighur minority is concentrated, they have rarely captured the same attention as this first large-scale killing outside the remote region.
The incident could severely harden popular and official opinion on Xinjiang — and provoke fresh outrage as a result, said Shan Wei, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute.
“The psychological impact of this on the Chinese general public will be enormous,” Shan said, adding that it will make people “more supportive of hard-line policies by the government.
“It gives the Chinese government a very strong reason to step up its hard-line policies on the Xinjiang or Uighur issue,” he added.
In an English-language commentary Sunday, Xinhua journalist Gui Tao called the assault China’s “9/11,” a reference to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Analysts say leaders may also feel the rampage leaves them less open to criticism often directed at Beijing’s Xinjiang policies.
Rights groups accuse China of cultural repression and discrimination in the resource-rich region. And Western analysts have tended to discount Beijing’s claim to be a victim of global jihad, saying it exaggerates the threat as a pretext to crack down on Uighurs.
“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, a 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.”
The Kunming attack came despite Beijing pushing a drive to develop Xinjiang after riots between Uighurs and ethnic majority Han left 200 people dead in the capital of Urumqi in 2009. The following year it began encouraging investment and subsidies in the area and enhancing preferential policies toward minorities.
Xinjiang saw 11.1 percent economic growth in 2013, surpassing the national rate of 7.7 percent.
But, said Shan: “You cannot expect that this problem can be resolved within a few years. You have to keep it up for maybe one decade, two decades.”