A shocking knife attack in China leads to comparisons with 9/11

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. In the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, a memorial has been set up outside the railway station to remember this weekend's dead. China's official news agency called what happened there on Saturday evening "China's 9-11." Reports say 8 people went on a killing rampage at the train station, attacking people randomly with knives and machetes. In a matter of minutes, more than 30 people were dead, including 4 suspects. About 140 people were injured. Chinese officials blame separatists from the Xinjiang region for the attack and they say the last 3 suspects have been captured. The World's Matthew Bell is in the studio with me. What do we know about these suspects, Matthew?

Matthew Bell: Not a whole lot, Marco, but we do have official statements. The Xinhua news agency says that someone named Abdurehim Kurban was the ringleader of this attack. It's not clear if this person is dead, is in custody or is even at large, but that name would suggest that the person is from the Xinjiang region, where the weaker ethnic minority is from in the far northwest of China. Chinese police have also said that they've found east Turkestan flags that belong to the attacks in Kunming. East Turkestan that many Uighurs use to refer to their homeland. Some Uighurs do want more autonomy and they're real critics of the central government's policies in Xinjiang.

Werman: Now, when you say Xinjiang and the Uighurs, we're talking about a group of people ethnically and physically that are different from the rest of the vast majority of China, right?

Bell: That's right. Different history. About 10 million Uighurs still live in Xinjiang. Most of the are Muslims. They speak a different language that's related to Turkish, not to Mandarin Chinese. But the Chinese central government has been very firmly of the Xinjiang region since the very early days of the founding of the People's Republic, going back to 1949.

Werman: How unprecedented is an attack like this in China?

Bell: There have been incidents of violence and Xinjiang is not a calm place. Just in the last year about 100 people have died and typically those have been in violent incidents between locals and Chinese security people. However, if this does turn out to be Uighurs from Xinjiang, this attack would absolutely be unprecedented. Kunming is thousands of miles away from Xinjiang. This is a transportation hub for that whole region in southwest China and Kunming. The railway station - I imagine some of our listeners and tourists who've visited China might've even been there. So this kind of attack, if it is Uighur extremists, this would be a real game changer.

Werman: Could this prompt an equally unprecedented reaction from the Chinese central government?

Bell: We've got some early indications of that from the official reaction. We've got the editorial in Xinhua that you mentioned, calling this "China's 9-11." That's pretty strong. China's security chief is quoted as saying that he will take all efforts to severely punish terrorism. There have been voices in the official news media, along with those in social media which is unofficial, calling for harsher crackdown on extremists. Some people mentioned Xinjiang and Uighurs specifically. Many Chinese people will get annoyed when the Western media brings up questions of China's policies in Xinjiang when there have been incidents of violence like this, but on the other hand, many Uighurs and many human rights organizations will say that it's a legitimate question to ask if there is a connection between the central government's policies and the simmering frustration that a lot of people feel.

Werman: The World's Matthew Bell, thanks a lot.

Bell: Thank you, Marco.