There is no faster way to lose support than to kill innocent people. On the evening of Saturday, March 1, ten or so uniformed assailants wielding foot-long knives launched an attack on civilians at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming. So far, the carnage has taken 29 lives and injured another 130.
Rumors first floated on China’s social media that the perpetrators are Uighurs, a Muslim minority from China’s western region of Xinjiang, an area known for ethnic unrest. A sign that looks similar to the star and crescent flag of East Turkestan Islamic Movement was reported to be found at the crime scene. The rumor was later confirmed by China state news agency Xinhua who labeled the mass killing “an organized, premeditated violent terrorist attack carried out by Xinjiang separatists.”
The attack will be a milestone event that marks a turning point of how ordinary Chinese people perceive situations in Xinjiang. Ethnic unrests, especially violent clashes between Han people and Uighur people, are not uncommon in this far western region of China. While the Chinese government has invariably portrayed all unrests as acts of separatism orchestrated by Islamist extremists, many Chinese people actually do acknowledge that violence by Uighurs, to a certain extent, is provoked by the government’s repressive policies and religion restrictions.
The Kunming train station attack, however, took away many people’s sympathy for the Uighurs. “No matter who, for whatever reason, or of what ethnicity, chose a place as crowded as a train station, and targeted at innocent people – they are evil and they should go to hell,” commented popular liberal intellectual Li Chengpeng on Weibo.
Such sentiment is pervasive. Another popular account on Weibo @二逼瓦西里 commented: “Repeat this with me: I oppose all terrorist attacks targeted at civilians. No matter how much you’ve suffered or how lofty your motives are, when you take innocent lives, you are an enemy of humanity, a shameful coward, and a criminal deserving to die. I have no interest in your story; I don’t care about your plea; I see no point in having talks. The only thing that needs to be done is to punish with no mercy.” The post has been shared more than 250,000 times in a few hours.
Usually in China when someone or some group takes “revenge on society” through killing after personal sufferings, such as the desperate man from Xiamen who set fire to a rush-hour bus last year, there are always a relatively large number of Chinese netizens who’d call for reflections or blame government policies or non action for what happened. But this time, those who merely hinted at the necessity of reflections on China’s ethnic polices and on Han people’s biased view of Uighurs are accused of being “heartless.”
One of the most popular comments thus concluded: “Those who tried to justify the killing and find excuses for the killers are monsters.”
Vows to retaliate aside, many are also calling for caution. A further deterioration of the already unfriendly relationship between China’s majority Han people and its Uighur minorities, though seems inevitable at this point, is probably the only worse thing than a mass killing that could happen. The goal of the terrorists, as one netizen 罗新PKU pointed out: “is to create separation. If we treat all Muslims or all Uighurs as criminals, then the terrorists are successful.”
Popular Chinese writer Han Han wrote on Weibo: “Terrorist attacks directed at innocent people must be punished. But I also wish that we don’t place our hatred on an entire ethnicity or an entire religion.” Another popular account 假装在纽约 echoed: “Please don’t turn angers towards the terrorists into fears of an entire ethnicity. Please don’t turn fights against violence into hostility towards an entire ethnicity.”
Some are even urging Chinese media to use “East Turkestan terrorists” instead of “Xinjiang separatists” so that the crime won’t be linked to Xinjiang and its people. The attack, if indeed launched with an agenda, has achieved nothing so far other than drawing more negative views of the Uighurs.
Xinjian native 木拉提老师 sighed: “The cold blade from a cruel terrorist offsets the smiles of thousands of kind Uighur people.”