On March 1, eight black-clad assailants armed with knives attacked a train station in China’s southwestern province of Kunming, killing 29 people and injuring 140. And China’s reaction has been anything but to the point.
The main suspects in this outburst of violence are Uighur separatists upset over China’s claim to Xinjiang, a province in China’s northwest referred to by activists as East Turkestan. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said that East Turkestan flags were discovered at the site of the attack, and China’s state news agency is quick to point to “terrorists from Xinjiang” as the perpetrators.
Xinjiang (“New Frontier” in Mandarin) was conquered by China’s Qing dynasty in 1884. After the Cultural Revolution, economic disparities between the native Uighur population and Han Chinese were exacerbated and ethnic tensions set in. “occasional Uighur protests and disturbances” have shocked China in recent years, including a mass outbreak of violence in July 2009 and car explosion in Tiananmen Square last October.
But while the “who” of this tragedy may be a done deal, it’s the “why” that has Chinese officials up in arms.
Zhang Chunxian, the Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang, cut to the chase and laid outright blame on the internet. “90 percent of the violent terrorist attacks by Xinjiang [separatists] are due to circumvention technologies for breaking the firewall,” he said yesterday at the National People’s Congress — an annual meeting of China’s parliament in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Such technologies, namely virtual private networks (VPNs), are used by individuals in China to get past the “Great Firewall” and access sites like Facebook, Google and YouTube. Zhang suggested that Uighur separatists used VPNs to access jihadi videos, therefore gaining inspiration and deadly knowledge they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Another reason Chinese officials give for the attack is foreigners who strive to undermine the CCP. “Xinjiang has entered… an active period of violence and terrorist attacks. We can’t rule out that there are foreign forces with ulterior motives behind it,” Nur Bekri, chairman of Xinjiang’s regional government, said yesterday. “What they don’t want to see is China united, strong and under the leadership of the Communist Party. They were inciting and operating behind it.” Foreign intervention is frequently blamed for what little of China’s ethnic unrest becomes known to the public, so while Nur Bekri’s words are sharp, they aren’t unprecedented.
The CCP’s hesitancy in attributing the attack to a specific cause is likely more complicated than an unwillingness to admit failure; China’s historical difficulties in subduing ethnic minorities around its borders are extensive, and the government isn’t afraid to use force against these peoples if it has to. What the Chinese government does fear, however, is the possibility of inter-ethnic conflict sparked by retaliation against Uighurs. It also fears the spread of information via the internet and the power that such knowledge can give to ordinary citizens. Unless China can accept the growing dissent of its citizens and the permanence of the internet, it will have no chance of developing a real solution these challenges or of moving forward as a strong, united country.
Perhaps this excerpt from a March 6 Wall Street Journal editorial says it best, especially in the midst of a National People’s Congress intent on preserving the status quo in the name of stability:
“The regime is attempting to be that rarest of creatures, the authoritarian that reforms its economy without losing its political control. At some point that will fail, and the leaders of the future will regret that their predecessors weren't willing to sacrifice more political authority in exchange for more sustainable growth.”