A lot has been written about the brutal knife attack on Saturday at a train station in Kunming, provincial capital of southwest China's Yunnan Province. It was the most deadly bout of violence China had seen since July 2009, when at least 200 people were killed over several days of ethnic clashes in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region. Yet there are missing elements in the media narrative about the attack:
1. The Chinese Government's claim that the attackers were from Xinjiang is credible.
There have been about 200 incidents of violent attacks in Xinjiang over the past year. Attacks perpetrated by Uyghurs often stem from perceived, and in many cases real, inequality, as well as ethnic and religious discrimination. An outflow of violence from the northwest to the east of the country would be a natural progression, a line of reasoning supported by the Tian'anmen square car attack in October last year.
What's more, extremists from Xinjiang have carried out attacks in Kunming before. In July 2008 bombs exploded on two public buses downtown, killing two people. The Turkestan Islamic Party (more below) claimed responsibility for the attacks, though the Chinese Government – keen to preserve a peaceful image in the lead-up to the Olympics – denied the bombings were an act of terrorism.
While no bombs were detonated in Kunming over the weekend, this does not diminish the possibility that the assailants came from the northwest: knives are the weapon of choice in most Xinjiang attacks.
2. Uyghurs in Xinjiang are oppressed, as has been reported. But the region is also on the radar of self-identifying Jihadists.
The Chinese Government routinely touts the line that the East Turkestan Islamic Party (ETIM) is behind violent incidents. While ETIM ceased to exist in 2003 when leader Hasan Mahsum was killed, another group, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), has since risen. It espouses roughly the same separatist goals as ETIM and is based in Waziristan, Pakistan.
TIP leader Abdullah Mansur praised two attacks last year – one of which was the Beijing car crash – as being acts of Jihad, though he stopped short of claiming TIP responsibility. The group has carried out attacks on Chinese territory before, notably in Kashgar in July 2011. A YouTube video issued by the TIP showed one of the attackers, Memtieli Tiliwaldi, training in Pakistan.
The TIP's broader aim is to internationalise the 'Xinjiang occupation'. For instance, since 2008 it has published a quarterly Arabic-language magazine which features TIP claims of responsibility for various attacks, op-eds by renowned global jihadists and biographies of Xinjiang's 'martyrs'.
Syria provides one route through which the Xinjiang issue may be increasingly on the radar of global jihadists. There are Chinese fighters in Syria: Jamestown analyst Jacob Zenn has written of video evidence of a Han Chinese convert to Islam and a Uyghur fighting in the country. China has claimed larger numbers of fighters, and worries that Jihadists are returning home.
The TIP is yet to make a statement on the Kunming stabbings. It is unclear whether it was perpetrated at its behest. It could equally be a copy-cat attack or a violent airing of grievances.
3. The Chinese Government is aware that ethnic inequality is a problem in Xinjiang.
Scholarly debate on China's policies in Xinjiang has proliferated in recent years. Some influential academics claim affirmative action policies benefiting minorities exacerbate the divide between different ethnicities. They call for affirmative action to be scrapped and for a single 'Chinese nationality' – not Han – to replace all of China’s 56 defined ethnic groups.
The Government has steered away from this line of reasoning, and has extended some support programs for minorities in Xinjiang. It has realised that improving infrastructure and state-led resource extraction projects disproportionately favours the Han, due to discrimination in hiring practices and educational opportunities. At the end of last year it kicked off a program in southern Xinjiang to promote aspects of Xinjiang's economy (carpets, Central Asian textiles and traditional horticulture) in which Uyghurs should theoretically have an advantage over Han. That said, heavy police surveillance and restrictions on religious practice remain equally sore points alongside economic disparity.
The Government, however, is constrained in expanding affirmative action policies by popular Han opinion. Many Han Chinese view the policies as unfair and regard the Uyghur in particular as violently unthankful for the gift of economic prosperity they have supposedly received.
This thinking is borne out in the social media reaction to Saturday's attacks. Alongside anti-Uyghur vitriol, one target for attack has been Beijing-based Time reporter Hannah Beech, whose report on Kunming went viral on Weibo. She dared to give a balanced account of Uyghur grievances against Beijing. Beech has since been 'flesh-searched' (details of her history and residence have been dug up and posted online) and there are loud calls for her expulsion from China.