At around 11 pm on March 1, I was in bed and about to fall asleep, when I saw a post on Facebook from a journalist friend of mine in the U.S. It said that a major violent incident had occurred at the Kunming Railway Station. Given that the station is only a 20-minute walk from where I live, I sent a text message to my girlfriend and a few close friends who live in the area advising them to be careful.
Normally, China is a safe place to live and the government puts a lot of emphasis on trying to keep society stable and harmonious. Nonetheless, it is a country still undergoing enormous change, and as elsewhere, this doesn’t come without its fair share of problems. Whether it’s ethnic strife or the widening gap between rich and poor, China has yet to arrive at a place of domestic stability.
I stayed up late checking for stories online about the attack. By midnight Chinese media had published a couple of stories, describing a knife attack at the station that had left dozens dead and more than a hundred injured. By 2 am, Google News was filling up with reports from news agencies around the world. My social network accounts were also overflowing with posts about the story. On Weibo, when the news came out that the attack might have been carried out by a group of people belonging to the Uyghur minority, one angry Chinese person started venting hate indiscriminately at all Muslims while offering exhortations such as “Kunming stay strong, let’s fight!” and “Pray for Kunming.”
The next morning, after a very poor sleep, I woke up and immediately returned to scouring the news from around the world, searching for answers. Eventually I pulled myself away from the computer and ventured out to meet up with friends. Over the next two days, I spoke with a number of Chinese and non-Chinese residents about the incident. One of the first Chinese people I met was a nurse who works at one of the main hospitals. She didn’t happen to be working the night of the attack, but said some of the casualties had been sent to her hospital and at least one of them had died in the emergency room soon after. “There was a lot of blood everywhere, it was very bad. The attackers knew what they were doing because they aimed at people’s vital organs.”
When I asked another Chinese friend for his opinion, he said to me, “William, you know, I think we need to ask ourselves why this could have happened.” This was a sober reflection on the fact that ethnic tensions are a growing political problem in today’s China. Ethnic pressure inside China has been building for some time now. Tibet and Xinjiang, two restive flashpoints, continue to have a strained relationship with the central government in Beijing. Issues over religious freedoms, greater autonomy, and other geo-political disagreements are rife.
Still, so soon after the attack, it was not the response I was expecting, yet many other local people I spoke with shared a similar analytical perspective.
Then there were the conspiracy theories. One woman said that she thought they might even have been from another country. Rumors were also flying that members of the government could have carried out the attack, to justify tighter restrictions on Xinjiang.
In the days afterward, we were worried about a possible second wave of attacks, as this isn’t the first time Kunming has experienced seemingly random violence. In 2008, several people were killed in bus bombings before the bomber blew himself up, apparently on accident, in a popular foreign-run café.
Fears of more attacks began to diminish after the authorities claimed they had caught all the suspects. While many of us questioned whether this was true, one local friend said to me, “We must believe that the police and our government have solved this case and we must trust this.”
Many people asked: “Why Kunming?” The capital of Yunnan province in southwest China, Kunming is one of the more ethnically colorful cities in China. Some analysts theorized that the city was not the actual target. Rather, lax security at a busy train station made it vulnerable to attackers hoping to do the most damage.
The usually laid back “Spring City” has now transformed into a security fortress. Special forces, SWAT teams and police are still omnipresent in the city center, particularly around the railway station. When I visited the station a few days after the attack, I noticed heavily armored trucks and soldiers strategically placed around the entrance. Two local men were giving out white flowers for the visitors to place at the memorial site, under the iconic statue of a golden bull at the main gate.
A crowd had gathered around to watch mourners come and go, while many people were walking around taking photos. Nonetheless, it was business as usual at the station, albeit with fewer travellers. “Are you travelling?” one man asked me. “Yes,” I lied, so as to not draw too much suspicion to myself. After all, I too was taking photographs and was the only foreigner there at that moment. Surprisingly, I wasn’t confronted by anyone else and I left the scene quietly.
The next evening, I was cooking dinner at home with my girlfriend when I heard a loud knock at my apartment door.
Standing outside were two security guards, a policeman and a soldier. Stern but polite, they asked to see our passports and checked our visas. Once they had verified that everything was in order, they pointed at the bag of garbage that was sitting outside my door, reminded us to take it downstairs and left. Ten minutes before the knock, my girlfriend had stepped out to buy some water and was followed by one of the guards. We speculated that she may have racially profiled as Uyghur because of her dark features. Similar incidents have happened to other foreigners living here.
Since the Kunming attack, the government has been expelling Uyghurs on a large scale, sending them back to their hometowns. Many people in Kunming worry that this type of ethnic isolation may only make matters worse. Because anyone with darker looks, a beard or other features is regularly mistaken for hailing from Xinjiang, some of Kunming’s international residents have been taking precautions. One of my non-Chinese friends shaved his beard, while my girlfriend has been tempted to cut her hair short and possibly even dye it.
That said, there have been no reports of any incidents involving the targeting of foreign residents. Indeed, many Xinjiang residents have posted on Weibo not only messages of condolences to the victims and their families in Kunming, but also calls not to stereotype all Uyghurs as terrorists. As the shock wears off, let us hope that this more reflective sentiment prevails.