Who's Behind The Mass Stabbing In China?

Mar 3, 2014
Originally published on March 3, 2014 6:41 pm

The Chinese government has blamed the deadly stabbing attack in southwest China on Muslim separatists from the country's northwest, but it has yet to provide hard evidence for the claim.

Police said they have captured the final three suspects in a knife attack that killed 29 people and left more than a 140 injured in the city of Kunming on Saturday, according to the state-run New China News Service.

Police say they shot and killed four suspects and captured an injured female suspect at the Kunming Rail Station, the scene of the massacre. China's Ministry of Public Security said the eight-member gang was led by a man named Abdurehim Kurban.

Xia Fanchao arrived at the station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province around 9 p.m. Saturday. He planned to catch a train toward the east coast, where he'd lined up a job installing elevators.

As the skinny 18-year-old stood outside the entrance, he noticed something strange.

"I saw a man carrying a bag, which he dropped on the floor of the square," said Xia, who spoke from his bed at the Kunming No. 1 People's Hospital. "Quite a few people rushed to the bag and unzipped it. Each took out a knife and then split up among the crowd and started to slash people."

Xia says the assailants, all clad in black, moved about the square without speaking. They slashed at people as though "they were chopping firewood." Xia said some of the knives were 20 inches long.

A woman in a long black dress and a black veil ran toward Xia.

"She lifted the knife and was about to slash me," he said. "I dodged and it cut my neck. It felt like I was being electrocuted."

Government Accuses Uighurs

Chinese officials say they have evidence the massacre was the work of Uighur separatists. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Monday that police found flags used by an outlawed separatist group from Xinjiang at the station after the attacks.

The Uighurs are a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people. There are about 9 million of them in China and they are concentrated in the northwest Xinjiang region. Uighur groups have deplored the massacre.

World Uyghur Congress spokesman Dilxat Raxit said in a statement to Radio Free Asia that there was "no justification for attacks on civilians," but added that repressive policies provoked "extreme measures."

"We've never seen anything quite like this," said Dru Gladney, a professor of anthropology at Pomona College in California, who has studied Uighurs for three decades. "This would mark an extreme escalation of the kinds of incidents we've seen in the past."

Gladney said Uighurs have various complaints about Chinese rule, including lack of access to jobs and educational opportunities. But past attacks have generally focused on government offices or police stations in Xinjiang — symbols of official power. Gladney said the slaughter of civilians in a city more than a thousand miles away, such as Kunming, is new.

"This may have been motivated by Islamic extremism, especially if they're dressed all in black, and especially if the woman was in a veil, a black veil," Gladney says. "Uighur women rarely wear that."

"Uighurs have not generally been susceptible to jihadi or Islamist extremism," Gladney continued. "This is quite disturbing."

Attackers Clad In Black

Zheng Jianguo, a warehouse manager from eastern China, witnessed the attack at the railway station. When he saw an assailant clad in black, he thought militant Islamists must be behind the violence.

"It looked like the outfit of a black widow," said Zheng, referring to Islamist female suicide bombers from Chechnya, who have worn similar clothing.

Zheng came to Yunnan on a photo safari with fellow hobbyists from the northern port city of Tianjin.

He was at the hospital Monday, visiting a fellow tour group member, Zhuge Ruichao, who was wounded in the attack. A doctor daubed the sutured gashes on Zhuge's scalp and rewrapped his head in gauze. Zhuge says he, too, was attacked by a person in a long black dress and matching veil.

"When the attacker stabbed my mouth, I felt the pain and unconsciously clenched my teeth," said Zhuge, whose mouth took more than 20 stitches. "I grabbed the dagger from the person's hands and stabbed back once, I don't know where exactly."

Ian He, an engineering student, spent part of Sunday night donating at a mobile blood bank for victims. As he stood in a line 15 deep, he pondered a few of the unanswered questions surrounding the massacre. He said he thinks Kunming, which is nicknamed Spring City because of its climate, was chosen for the attack because it was a soft target.

"They cannot fight face-to-face against armed forces, so they came to a remote city to carry out the attack," said He, who wore a gray hoodie, jeans and a baseball cap.

As to why the attackers used knives, instead of guns – which are illegal, but accessible - He thought it was for effect.

"We feel guns are not that scary," he said. "Their goal is to create chaos and terror. In fact, knives are more terrorizing."

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Police in China say all suspects in this weekend's mass knife attack in the southwestern city of Kunming are now dead or in custody. The attackers killed 29 people and injured more than 140 in a massacre at a crowded rail station. Victims describe a gang dressed in black, chasing and slashing people in and around the station. Authorities are blaming Muslim separatists from the country's northwest for what Chinese state-run media are calling China's 9/11.

NPR's Frank Langfitt joins me now from Kunming. And, Frank, what more can you tell us about the people who carried out this attack?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, we don't know that much, and we're going with what the police are saying. They announced the arrest of three suspects today. That's in addition to four dead that the police say they shot on Saturday and one who was wounded and captured at the scene. They gave the name of a leader. He's called Abdurehim Kurban. We don't know much more about him. New China News Service isn't saying exactly who he is. And they're saying, all in all, it was a gang of eight people. Now, of course, that's a lot of damage by not a lot of people who were just armed with knives.

BLOCK: And, Frank, the Chinese government has been blaming Uyghur separatists for this massacre. Remind us who the Uyghurs are and the tensions that there have been with the Chinese government.

LANGFITT: Well, they're Muslim Turkic-speaking people. There are about 9 million of them in China. They live all around the country. There are some in my neighborhood in Shanghai. But their heartland is a place called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It's in the far northwest. Incidentally, it's very rich in resources, 40 percent of China's coal comes from there.

The Uyghurs are Central Asian. They don't look like ethnic Chinese. They don't really have anything culturally in common with Chinese, and they've complained for years that their region really isn't autonomous at all. The Chinese call the shots. They'll get enough access to jobs and schooling as China's economy has been taking off. Now, there are some support, maybe not that much for a separate state, but most seem just resentful and would like to see a better deal.

BLOCK: But one of many puzzling things about this massacre, Frank, is that the attack happened in Kunming, which is nowhere near the Uyghur heartland that you've been talking about.

LANGFITT: Yeah. This is - the whole attack is really extraordinary, and there have been attacks before. You know, Uyghurs will attack police stations, and they might use guns and they might use homemade explosives. But it tends to be in Xinjiang - usually in southern Xinjiang. We've never seen anything outside the region like this. And so, that's one of the things that really has caught people off guard.

I talked to some people here in town, and they think that one of the reasons they chose the city is they wanted to make a statement but they wanted to go after a softer target than, say, Beijing and Shanghai, which has a really big police presence.

BLOCK: Is there anything known about the religious background of the attackers?

LANGFITT: Well, we really don't know. The police are telling us very little. I'd like to emphasize that to people. One thing that's striking is they were all clad in black, and this is a change from what we've seen in the past. There was at least one, maybe two women, in long dresses and veils, so that gave the appearance at least of them being strict Muslims. And this is like a kind of change.

Uyghurs are not particularly adherence of Islamism. They're mostly quite moderate. And one man that I met who was in the crowd that night at the station, when he saw these women, he said, they reminded him of the black widows. And he was referring to Chechen female suicide bombers who've dressed similarly.

BLOCK: I would think, Frank, that would be the kind of story that Chinese authorities would try to clamp down on, would not want to give reporters access. But you were able to get into the hospital and talk to victims.

LANGFITT: Yeah. This was a big change because the last time I tried to get into a hospital on a sensitive story, Melissa, I had to actually sneak in at midnight. This was very, very different. I basically was able to walk into patients' rooms. There are cops. There were questions. There were other officials there. I had to sign in. But nobody tried to stop me. And I think what was going on here is China gets a lot of criticism about how it treats its minorities, the Uyghurs and the Tibetans. That's very sensitive criticism.

And I think that authorities actually wanted reporters to be here. They wanted to talk to the victims, and they wanted reporters to get the story out to the rest of the world so that maybe people would understand, to some degree, what China is dealing with and maybe see it from the Chinese government's point of view.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting on the massacre this weekend in Kunming, China. Frank, thanks very much.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.