The train station attack on the day after the end of the Chinese New Year’s celebration was a terse reminder that China is a totalitarian dictatorship. The attack by a group of suspected Uyghurs terrorists may signal cracks in Chinese “Unity”that have not been seen before, suggesting that there are deep fissures opening up in the basic social fabric of the nation. While the West has been marveling at the Chinese economic miracle that has taken place over the past 20 years, the real Chinese miracle may be unraveling.
At least 10 black clad, knife wielding assailants invaded a Kunming, Yunnan train station Friday in an apparently premeditated attack against unarmed civilians. Reports indicate that 33 people are dead, including four of the attackers, and 130 were wounded. Police say they shot five of the attackers.
The train station attack was the worst terrorist incident in recent Chinese memory. Chinese president Xi Jinping ordered a crackdown on violent terrorist activities, while local officials compared the incident to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center despite the obvious differences in the order of magnitude of the two events.
Westerners have been trained to think of China as a monolithic nation ruled by a top-down oligarchic system. The reality is that the China is actually composed of 59 different, officially recognized ethnic groups, the largest of which – the Han people – represented almost 92 percent of the total population of the country. Nineteen other ethnic minorities all have populations in excess of one million. The largest minority, the Zhung people, represent 1.27 percent of the population, equivalent to almost 17 million people. Other ethnic groups in the top 20 include the Hui (also known as Hunan), Manchu (known to Westerners as “the Manchurians”), along with the Uyghur, Tibetans, Mongols, Koreans, and Kazakhs.
In addition to these ethnic divisions, China also has regional geographical divisions that cut across the ethnic diversity of the nation as a whole. Dissidents from one of those geographical divisions, the northwestern Xinjiang region, may have been responsible for Saturday’s explosion of violence in the Southwest city of Kunming in the southwestern Yunnan province.
The Xinjing province is home to China’s Uyghurs Muslims. There are more than 10 million Uyghurs according to China’s own census figures, which makes them the sixth largest minority group in the country, and the fact that they want out might just have something to do with the location of the Xingjing province in the extreme northwestern corner of the country. It is the largest region in the country, and shares borders with Russia, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. With the Islam as the majority religion in the region, Xinjing has more in common with some of its neighbors than it does with the officially atheist China.
The images of the violence from the train station attack spread across the newspapers of the world depicting three things, a shocked public, an angry government and a determined group of revolutionaries striking out against astronomical odds. The innocent bystanders who were caught in the attack ask why these things happen, why people do such things to one another.
The answer is locked up in the decades long Uyghurs separatist movement that has become increasingly violent as the Uyghurs search for a mechanism to unlock the equation of Chinese population control methods.
The Chinese have granulated their control mechanisms so that everyone is locked into a surveillance system in which everyone spies on everyone else, and everyone reports deviations from expected behavior up a through a decision-making chain of command through which offenders are isolated, ostracized, and minimized to the point where they are unable to function in Chinese society without eventually succumbing to the pressure and conforming to expected patterns of behavior. That method of population control doesn’t work with the Uyghurs people, however, because their extended family clan structures serve as an antidote to Orwellian thought control programs.
The official party line is that China is diligently proceeding along a prescribed path leading toward a unified, integrated nation, but that message has not been received in Xinjing, where Uyghurs and Han peoples live in relative isolation from one another, usually with Han in the cities and the Uyghurs out in the countryside. As the pace of the Uyghurs’ terrorist attacks increase, resentment toward Uyghurs will increase within Communist party circles, generating increased rounds of repression against the Uyghurs, and stimulating more friction between the Uyghurs and other Chinese ethnic groups.
Yesterday’s train station attack was specifically designed to trigger an extreme response from the Chinese government, following the tried and true methodology of revolutionaries throughout history. Turn the government against the people and the government will turn the people against the government. The more times the Uyghurs antagonist the Chinese government with their terrorist attacks, the more the Chinese will repress them, galvanizing the Uyghurs into further actions in an escalating pattern of mutual antagonism that is the revolutionary’s tried and true method for breaking the bonds of enslavement.
A terrorist who straps on an I.E.D. is a very different sort of person from one who participates in a tightly orchestrated attack like this. Knife attacks like these are extremely rare. Imagine what kind of anger and dedication it takes to slash one person with a knife. Now, multiply that by 10 or 12 times. Every now and then, a lone assailant wades into a crowd with a knife, but it is almost unique for 10 or 12 people to do the same thing in unison. That is something to be feared, and that is why the Uyghurs did it.
The train station attack was a brutal reminder that China’s economic miracle is balanced on a knife-edge of international trade aided and abetted by brutal domestic repression. Her social integration experiment also hangs in the balance. If the Chinese government doesn’t repress the Uyghurs, that will encourage other ethnic minorities to increase their resistance to the oligarchic dictatorship that the Communist country has turned into. Empires always collapse at periphery first.
Opinion By Alan M. Milner