The group of about 10 attackers, dressed in black and wearing cloth masks, arrived in front of a train station in southwest China on Saturday night and began slashing at employees and commuters, sometimes repeatedly plunging their long knives into people too stunned or slow to flee.
By the time the police shot dead four assailants and ended the attack, the square and ticket sales hall at the Kunming Railway Station had been filled with bodies and moaning survivors in pools of blood. It was an alarming rebuff to the Chinese government’s vows to bring stability to the ethnically divided far-western region where it said the attackers came from.
China’s official state-run news agency, Xinhua, which delivered the account of the attack on Saturday night, said that at least 29 people had died and 143 were wounded in the attack in Kunming, the regional capital of Yunnan Province. The city government said the killings were an act of terrorism planned and perpetrated by separatists from Xinjiang, the far-western Chinese region where members of the Uighur minority are at odds with the government, and President Xi Jinping also called the perpetrators “terrorists.” So far, no group has claimed responsibility.
Residents in Kunming said they were stunned that the city, best known as a warm, leafy tourist destination, could suffer such a spasm of bloodshed.
“It happened too suddenly,” Du Zhenwu, a 48-year-old resident who lives near the Kunming train station, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think anybody saw it coming.” He repeated rumors, unsupported by the government, that dozens of attackers were still at large. “With the exits all blocked around Kunming, many people think these dozen people are still in Kunming City. They can’t have gone far. So it’s a little frightening for us.”
The widespread public revulsion and fear unleashed by the attack is likely to shore up the position of the Chinese government that its pervasive security controls in Xinjiang are justified and that even tighter policies are justified there and elsewhere. The killings have dominated news in China, with television broadcasters, Internet services and newspapers offering descriptions and gruesome pictures. As well as shooting and killing four attackers, the police captured one, the website of the newspaper People’s Daily said. The police are pursuing the other suspects, a Xinhua report said.
China’s Communist Party leadership has responded by vowing to take tougher measures against the perpetrators of such violence. Meng Jianzhu, the party leader who oversees domestic policing and security, stood on the square in front of the Kunming Railway Station and told Phoenix Television, a Hong Kong-based service: “This gang of terrorists were cruel without any humanity. They completely abandoned their conscience. We must strike hard against them according to the law.”
But experts said that, if the official accounts are correct, the attack also appears to be a serious lapse by the security authorities and raises a troublesome question for President Xi: Why have the government’s increasingly tough policies so far failed to staunch the violence in Xinjiang, which has now spilled over into a distant province with no recent history of major ethnic unrest?
“As a single incident, you can say that this is the most brutal, cruel incident we’ve seen from Xinjiang,” Rohan Gunaratna, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who studies terrorism in Asia, including China, said in a telephone interview. In July 2009, at least 200 people died in ethnic bloodshed in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, when Uighur men attacked Han Chinese residents. But Professor Gunaratna said that was a chain of episodes, rather than a single, concerted assault like the one on Saturday.