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Kunming knife attacks: China is playing with fire

March 03, 2014 18:35 IST

Domestically, China’s ‘strike hard’ policy is alienating Uighurs further in Xinjiang. China’s quid pro quo with the Taliban is hardly any lasting solution to the Afghanistan crises or to regional security, says Srikanth Kondapalli.

As calm returns back to the beautiful city of Kunming in the southwestern region of China after knife attacks at the railway station that killed nearly 33 innocent citizens and wounded 143, people would be asking the government’s response in providing security to them. The police had shot four, while the rest of the attackers have escaped.

If we go by the spate of attacks recently across the country, these are many and indicate to the hollowness of the government’s claim to political stability. Queerly, if we go by the recent history, China’s myopic policies appeared to be responsible for these incidents. It is no coincidence that prior to China’s military intelligence training of the mujahedeen to counter the Soviets in the 1980s in Afghanistan, the country hardly witnessed any of such incidents.

Meng Jianzhu, the politburo member in charge of internal security, on a visit to Kunming stated that the attackers were ‘terrorists’ and suggested a ‘strike hard’ policy against them. The official news agency Xinhua suggested that the Kunming attackers had links to Xinjiang.

A day after the attacks, the 15-member United Nations Security Council issued a statement which read: “The members of the Security Council underlined the need to bring perpetrators, organisers, financiers and sponsors of this terrorist attack to justice, and urged all states, in accordance with their obligations under international law and relevant Security Council resolutions, to cooperate actively with all relevant governments in this regard.” China earlier had signed the UNSC Resolutions 1267, 1373 and 1540 related to counter-terror measures.

All the above suggest that the Kunming incident is connected to Xinjiang where 10 million Uighurs live. A million Uighurs have migrated to other parts of China including to Kunming. Uighurs resent the migration of 8 million Han nationals to Xinjiang, specifically their domination in all walks of life in the region.

While Uighur political aspirations in Xinjiang date back to the 1930s when they established an independent East Turkestan, since the 1990s there has been an increase in their political protests -- reflected in attacks on key Chinese installations and government buildings, assassination attempts of Han officials, party members and others, etc. The then Chinese military’s deputy chief of staff Xiong Guangkai, who served in Xinjiang during the 1980s, had mentioned in his book that Uighurs have launched more than 260 attacks since 1990 in which about 170 were killed and 440 wounded. He estimated that over 1,000 Uighurs received training from Al-Qaeda.

The July 5, 2009 Urumgi riots in the capital of Xinjiang resulted in 189 dead, 816 injured, 261 vehicles burnt in a span of two hours. Subsequently, over 200 incidents were reported which were linked to Xinjiang issue. In 2013, four major incidents took place in Xinjiang. On April 24, 2013 about 21 (including 15 officials) were killed at Bachu county in Kashgar.

In June, 15 Uighurs were killed in police firing in Hotan prefecture's Hanerik township when hundreds of Uighurs were protesting the arrest of a young religious leader and closure of a mosque. 50 people were injured in this incident. On June 26, the police base, government offices and construction site were targeted by locals of Lukqun.

At the same time a series of attacks in Turpan, Xinjiang resulted in 46 deaths which included 16 Uighurs. Police reportedly killed 11 even as 21 police officers and civilians were injured. Subsequently, on August 20, 15 Uighurs were killed by police in “anti-terror campaign” in Yilkiqi in Kashgar prefecture. One Han policeman was also killed.

In early August, it was reported that police opened fire at a crowd of Uighurs protesting prayer restrictions in Akyol town in Aksu prefecture ahead of Ramadan, killing at least three and injuring about 50 others. On October 28, 2013, a car crashed in the heart of the capital city -- the Tiananmen Square -- exposing China’s claims to providing round-the-clock security. China blamed Uighurs for this act.

Later, on November 6, 2013, a series of blasts occurred outside CCP buildings in Shanxi Province’s capital city of Taiyuan. In 2014, on February 14, eight Uighurs were shot by the police in Uqturpan of Aksu prefecture.

To counter these, China’s policies include “strike hard” on suspected Uighurs in Xinjiang and elsewhere including in central Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan through coordination efforts with these neighbouring countries. In the last decade, China had participated in the annual ‘peace mission’ exercises with central Asia and Russia, while conducting counter-terrorism exercises with Pakistan.

Yet, China’s fundamental approach appears to be flawed both in Xinjiang as well as externally with its recent parleys with the Hekmatyar group in Afghanistan.

Domestically, China’s ‘strike hard’ policy is alienating Uighurs further in Xinjiang. The newly formed National Security Commission is yet to show results. Externally, as the United States troops wind down in Afghanistan, China had revived its Taliban card after its ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin met with Mullah Umar in 2000.  China’s quid pro quo with the Taliban is hardly any lasting solution to the Afghanistan crises or to regional security.

When the Mumbai attacks took place in November 2008, China’s then vice foreign minister He Yafei planned to mediate between New Delhi and Islamabad. As China’s counter-terrorism approach is hollow, New Delhi did not pay heed, despite later launching three ‘hand-in-hand’ joint operations between the armies.

There appears to be no long-term fresh thinking in China today on such incidents. On the other hand, some in China have played with fire and still in a post ISAF Afghanistan want to cobble up coalitions with the Taliban. Herein lay the challenges to the safety of the people of China as with others.

Srikanth Kondapalli is professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Srikanth Kondapalli