In central China violence involving a man armed with a knife has left six people dead, only two weeks after an organized knife attack in western China killed 29 people. This Friday’s attack took place in a market in Changsha, Hunan province, at around 10 a.m. Details of the attack are uncertain. Initially, witnesses reported multiple, possibly Turkic people involved, but Chinese authorities have reported that the incident was caused by a dispute between market vendors.
Chinese state media reported that the attacker killed the man with whom he was arguing, then killed four others with his knife before authorities shot the assailant dead. Xinhua News Agency reported that the two men involved in the initial altercation had Uighur names: Hebir Turdi and Memet Abla.
Uighur are also blamed for the March 1 attack in Kunming, Yunnan, in which eight black-clad, knife-wielding people attacked citizens around Kunming’s main train station, killing 29 and wounding 130. Police on the scene shot dead four of the attackers and detained a fifth. Chinese authorities announced that they had apprehended the remaining three criminals two days later. The culprits were reported by Chinese media to be separatists from Xinjiang.
There have been over 200 violent incidents in Xinjiang in the past year, according to international terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, who also notes that most of these incidents were small-scale.
The region of Xinjiang, like Tibet, is a large western territory held by China which has always experienced serious resistance to Chinese rule. The majority of the population of Xinjiang is Muslim (58 percent), of which about five percent is Chinese ethnically. Han Chinese account for 41 percent of the population of the region. Xinjiang is experiencing a sort of economic boom due to exports of the regions coal, oil and gas. The country’s GDP increased from $28 billion in 2004 to $104 billion in 2011. However, income is disparate: in some parts of Xinjiang, such as the south, where the population is 95 percent non-Han Chinese, per capita income is half the country’s average.
The most common complaint of the non-Han majority under Chinese rule is exclusion from job opportunities and the restriction of ethnic and religious expression under Chinese government policies. according to Prof. Gunaratna, the Uighurs suffer discrimination at the hands of the Chinese and Uighur leaders have few avenues to address their concerns. In the words of one street vendor, “If you look at the options for Uighurs in Kunming, the only options are selling skewers and melons by the road. They’re very low-end jobs.”
Uighurs in Xinjiang have contended Chinese rule since the establishment of Xinjiang as a Chinese province in 1884, when it received its current political title–Xinjiang means “New Frontier.” Before that time the area was referred to by the Chinese as “Muslimland.” In 1949 the Chinese army entered Xinjiang, in what was referred to by the Chinese as a “peaceful liberation” and by others, alternatively, as an invasion. Xinjiang was established as a Chinese autonomous region in 1955. In the 1980s and 90s, demonstrations, protests, riots and attacks in the region were blamed by the Chinese government on “religious separatists.”
More recently, violent incidents have made headlines, such as the 2007 Xinjiang raid, the 2008 attempted suicide bombing of China Southern Airlines, the 2008 Xinjiang attack which killed 16 police just days before the Beijing Olympics, the 2009 Urumqi riots, and the 2010 Asku bombing. Last October, three Uighurs drove a jeep through Tiananmen’s Square, caught fire, and killed two pedestrians, the three passengers, and injured 40 others.
Although Chinese authorities have explained this Friday’s knifing incident as a disagreement between two vendors, terrorism experts are predicting that, given the nature of the more serious attack in Yunnan earlier this month, further attacks are likely. The experts point to the fact that the organization of the Uighur terrorists has evidently improved. The target–Kunming–is a soft target in a tourist-friendly capital where Uighurs work usually only menial jobs. The timing of the attack was just ahead of important political gatherings in Beijing. The numbers of attackers and victims was more significant than past attacks. The attack likely involved lengthy and skilled planning. The terrorists, who are suspected to have traveled from some other region to Kunming, likely had some local support.
By Day Blakely Donaldson