In part one of an analysis of the 30 September bombings in Guangxi, South China, Alexandra Grey examined how fury over corruption and uneven economic progress can turn deadly. This piece examines suggestions ethnic unrest had a role in the blasts.

Mourners at the scene of the Kunming Railway Station attack, March 2014. (Flickr/Zhoumingjia.)

Until the alleged bomber behind the 30 September tragedy was identified as a disgruntled quarry owner, the Guangxi bombings were ripe for interpretation as the latest example of ethno-nationalist violence in China. And the door on that line of thought has still not shut completely, as it now appears the alleged culprit died in the blasts and could therefore not have been responsible for the parcel bomb that exploded the following day. It is likely the second incident was a left-over from the previous day's blasts but we are unlikely to know for sure because, as noted in the South China Morning Post, authorities have gagged reporting on the incident.

So is there any basis to justify continued speculation of Uyghur militant involvement?

The Uyghur are an officially recognised minority ethnic group in China, with the majority living in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. There is alleged to be an 'underground' route from Xinjiang through Yunnan and over the border to Vietnam and Thailand for smuggling out Uyghur people. Because some smuggled-out Uyghurs arrive in Vietnam, which shares a border with Guangxi in South China, some commentators suggested the Guangxi bombings might be evidence of Uyghur militant activity. But the profile of the 30 September bombings was unlike either the mass stabbing at Kunming Railway Station in Yunnan last year (Uyghur separatists have already been tried and executed for that attack), or the recent bombing in Bangkok, which some analysts suggested was linked to Uyghur militants. Moreover, the border into China from Vietnam has become increasingly closed and militarised in recent years; and there has been heightened vigilance in surveillance of Uyghur suspects in Guangxi.

Of course, new evidence could come to light that would change this conclusion. But at present, given the credible economic and governance causes discussed in part 1, suggestions of Uyghur involvement are unhelpful. 

Still, it is worth examining more broadly the ethnic angle to the Guangxi bombings.

After all, the bombings coincided with National Day celebrations, which saw ethnic minority celebrations in Beijing and President Xi meeting '13 outstanding grass-roots ethnic solidarity representatives'. As often happens when minority ethnic groups are recognised in China, representatives at the Beijing celebration came from China's five ethnic minority autonomous regions: Guangxi is one of these, along with Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Ningxia.

Three of these five regions are well known for violence perpetrated by both sides; Guangxi is not. However, it is too simplistic to conclude that Guangxi's minorities are so effectively oppressed as to cause no trouble. A more insightful approach begins with the question: why do some ethnic autonomous regions come to be regarded as sufficiently stable such that incidents like these bombings are seen as out of place, while public violence in other autonomous regions is seen as commonplace?

Guangxi was not especially closely integrated into imperial China, so its stability today is not a factor of history. In imperial times, Guangxi was regarded as a barbarian frontier, incorporated into China by governance structures rather than by ethnicity or shared nationhood. Its inhabitants were seen as non-Han in imperial circles, which were largely Han. Skipping forward to PRC times, successfully governing Guangxi was a high priority in the early years because of its strategic borderland position, and because few cadres spoke the native language of the local Zhuang minority while few Zhuang speakers spoke Han, making control uncertain. Language barriers reduced over time; nevertheless, areas around Guilin in Guangxi were reportedly unstable and off-limits to foreign journalists in the 1970s.

The prevailing image within China, and internationally, is that Guangxi is calm and not especially ethnically diverse. In fact, the eponymous Zhuang people of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region are China's most populous official minority ethnic group (approximately 16 million). But it would be unwise to assume homogeneity across views on ethnicity and government among such a large population. That most Zhuang people today can speak the Han language is often assumed to show the Zhuang have no distinct identity. My PhD research, however, suggests that a distinct Zhuang identity is alive and well, even though many Zhuang people now either speak both Zhuang and Han, or have swapped Zhuang for Han.

For most, this identity simply consists of a benign pride in Zhuang heritage. A minority of Zhuang people are unhappy about the diminishing practice of Zhuang language and culture. Of those, some see the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Regional government – not the Central Government – as failing to promote Zhuang interests, but also common is the view that it is the Zhuang people themselves who have allowed this to happen. Importantly, I have found these views exist without any hint of the separatism that pervades minority-majority tensions in north-west China.

Within Guangxi, Zhuang concentration in the area of the bombings (around Liuzhou) is relatively high, and the bombing suspect named in Chinese media had a common Zhuang surname (韦). That does not mean the blasts related to putative Zhuang causes (or, for that matter, were undertaken in sympathy with other minorities). The timing and the identity of the suspect merely suggest an ethnic element was possible. But it is significant the Chinese authorities avoided any mention of ethnicity in commentary on the bombings. That this angle was downplayed in Chinese media reveals something of how ethnic politics is being managed: governments and the media perceive that ethnic tensions have become increasingly flammable, even in Guangxi.