It’s already being called “3.01,” or “three oh one,” a date that will likely burn in China’s collective memory for years to come. According to Xinhua, China’s state news agency, on the evening of March 1, around 9:00 p.m. Beijing time, ten or more uniformed assailants wielding long knives and dressed mostly in black descended upon the ticket hall at a busy train station in Kunming, the capital of southern Yunnan province. They began hacking indiscriminately at innocent travelers, killing at least twenty-nine and injuring 130, tolls that may continue to mount. Footage from China Central television shows a knife retrieved from the crime scene that looked about one foot long.
Xinhua reports that police have determined that the act was “orchestrated by Xinjiang separatists” based on “evidence left at the scene.” As of this article’s publication, state-owned television station reports that four perpetrators—three men and one woman—have been shot dead, and one female perpetrator had been captured. If the Xinhua report is correct about the attackers’ motives, this would constitute one of the worst terrorist attacks outside of Xinjiang, a restive region in Western China, in recent memory. There were about 190 violent attacks in Xinjiang in 2012, according to Xinjiang police, but incidents outside of Xinjiang are relatively rare. In October 2013, a jeep crashed in front of Tiananmen Square, the symbolic center of capital Beijing, killing five tourists and injuring dozens, and the police blamed it on Xinjiang separatists. (Kunming is about 1,500 miles from Xinjiang’s capital, and is not usually associated with Uighur separatism.)
Although Xinhua’s accusation has not been verified, the report itself was almost certainly vetted and approved by central government authorities, and thus fairly evinces the Chinese government’s collective state of mind. The accusation of Xinjiang involvement may foreshadow even more severe crackdowns in a restive region that has already seen its share. Chinese President Xi Jinping has issued a statement, which avers that authorities will “strike hard” at all terrorist violence and “guarantee the life and property” of citizens, but he has not yet commented on Xinhua’s identification of Xinjiang attackers.
The news first broke on China’s social media—which continues to function as the closest thing China has to a digital public square—as eyewitnesses inside the Kunming train station started to call for help. Photos posted on Weibo show pools of blood in the ticketing hall, bodies strewn around, and crowds running from the scene. “I’ve never been so scared in my life,” tweeted one user on Tencent Weibo, another microblogging platform; “I saw blood spilled right in front of me.” “I saw a police officer getting stabbed with my own eyes,” wrote a Sina Weibo user. A reporter who spoke to a survivor who saved two six-year-olds wrote, “The children saw killing at close range and are close to an emotional breakdown.”
Related chatter has dominated Sina Weibo since. “Kunming” is the most popular discussion topic by far, with many lighting digital candles, writing, “pray for Kunming” or “we are all Kunmingers,” or sharing graphic images purporting to show the aftermath of the slaughter. Several users wrote that the incident “was our 9-11,” in reference to the far more deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil in September 11, 2001.
This attack may also presage a further deterioration in the relationship between the majority Han, who comprise approximately ninety-two percent of China’s population, and the country’s approximately 10 million Uighurs, a Muslim minority who predominantly live in Xinjiang. The carnage has “deepened my prejudice against Uighurs,” admitted one Weibo user; “don’t tell me most of them are good.” But online unanimity does not reign. Among the most popular comments on the Xinhua report was a warning: “Let’s not say that all Xinjiang people are one way or another, or say the government is one way or another.” Another cautioned web users not to “fire cannons based on a map,” a phrase that refers to regional discrimination.
Debate surrounding the attack has turned rancorous, with some accusing others of showing sympathy for the perpetrators. Liberal journalist Luo Changping wrote that in the immediate wake of the carnage, a reporter told him that Chinese press “would never tell you what has really happened,” so long as “you blindly hate, inexplicably fear, sleepwalk through life, then die without understanding anything.” That post was shared more than 40,000 times, and some accused Luo of demonstrating sympathy for the perpetrators. In another one of the most popular comments about the incident on the massive Weibo platform, one user wrote, “Say it with me now: I oppose all terrorist actions directed at innocent citizens.” Those who take innocent life are “enemies of humanity,” the post continued, “no matter how lousy their luck, no matter how lofty their motives.”
One writer named Han Han, hyper-popular with young Chinese and widely known for his skill in walking right up to the fuzzy red line drawn by authorities without stumbling over, seemed eager to mediate between defenders and attackers of the Uighur minority when he wrote that he condemns terrorism, while also “wishing that we don’t place our hatred on an entire ethnicity or an entire religion.” That comment has been shared over 200,000 times. But Han has a gift for ambiguity. As facts continue to emerge—with government pressure on Xinjiang looking likely to grow—many Chinese will feel forced to take sides.
Yiqin Fu and Bethany Allen contributed research.