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Mass murder at Kunming train station: propaganda by deed

REUTERS/China Daily
Policemen check unclaimed luggage at a square outside the Kunming railway station after Saturday's attack.

A group of eight Uighur separatists from China’s restive Xinjiang region entered Kunming train station in southern China late last Saturday. They slashed to death at least 29 people and injured 143 others in reportedly one of the deadliest attacks in recent Chinese history. The government-run Xinhua News Agency described the train station assault as a “premeditated violent terrorist attack.” China’s Communist Party leadership identified the assailants as a “gang of terrorists,” some female, dressed in black.

densley photo
James Densley

To us, the authors of an empirical study on mass murder in China, the events last weekend were noteworthy. Our research covered all recorded mass murders (that is, an incident in which one or more assailants kill four or more victims within a 24-hour period) in China from 2000 to 2011 inclusive — 165 cases total — as derived from a content analysis of Chinese media sources. We concluded the mass murders had between four and seven victims, transpired in rural areas, and in private locations such as people’s homes. The mass murderers were typically lone male offenders motivated either by revenge or profit. The events in Kunming do not fit the profile. Not one of our cases was classified as “terrorism.”

The Kunming attacks thus speak to a few things. First, the Chinese government may be reserving the domestic “terrorism” label for acts perpetrated by those outside China’s dominant ethnic Han majority. The Uighurs are a Turkic people who mostly follow moderate traditions of Sunni Islam and seek equal treatment under the law. The Chinese press is still the megaphone of the party and the state. If the media says the perpetrators are terrorists, then they are terrorists.

Second, and related, smart phones and social media present a problem for the Chinese state. In the immediate aftermath of the Kunming atrocity, bloody images began surfacing on Chinese social media sites. Censors quickly removed them, but once the people see something they cannot unsee it. A crime like a mass murder now cannot go unnoticed. It confirms our suspicions that 165 mass murders in 11 years was an undercount.

Susan Hilal

Third, it appears attacks by Uighur separatists seeking to establish an independent state have increased since our research ended in 2011. It has been reported that at least 100 people have died in outbreaks of violence in the troubled western region of Xinjiang in the past year. In October, a Jeep ploughed into tourists in Tiananmen Square, killing two pedestrians and the three people in the vehicle. Authorities attributed the attack to Muslim extremists. A subsequent security crackdown then focused on ethnic minorities, particularly the Uighurs. Last month, police killed eight people who they said had attacked patrol cars in Xinjiang.

Violence procreates violence. China’s controls and religious restrictions in the region seem to be exacerbating, not defusing, the tensions underlying the violence. But it cuts both ways. In 2009, almost 200 died in ethnic rioting in Urumqi, the regional capital, then an unknown number of Uighurs died in vigilante attacks in the days following.

A coordinated, premeditated event

The train-station attack was a coordinated, premeditated event, with rudimentary weaponry. Indeed, the only thing consistent about events Saturday and the events described in our study of a decade of mass murders is the use of knives as the weapon of choice in China. Guns are heavily regulated in China, whereas cutlery is not. But knives also represent an intensively personal means of dispatch — they are not ranged weapons that allow for physical and mental distancing. When people are motivated to kill, therefore, mass destruction is achievable without mass sophistication. In our study the highest number of victims killed in one incident was 17, and in this case, the weapon was not a knife, but poison.

The event that transpired on Saturday took aforethought and planning. One could surmise, therefore, that the offenders knew it had potential to be a suicide mission — they would either die in the act or be caught knife in hand and executed. Such is constant with propaganda by the deed, the very definition of terrorism. And no amount of propaganda exists to justify mass murder.   

James Densley, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University. He is the author of  "How Gangs Work: An Ethnography of Youth Violence" (Palgave Macmillan, 2013). Densley holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford.

Susan Hilal, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University. In 2012 she lived in Macau (S.A.R. of China) for one year where she did research and taught at the University of Macau.

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