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The Mystery Behind China's Latest Knife Massacre

Mass stabbings are common in China, but the deadly attacks at Kunming railway station have left experts confused.
Photo via AFP/Mark Ralston

Mass stabbings in China are like mass shootings in the United States: surprisingly common.

But the deadly slashing spree in Kunming railway station in southern China on March 1 is puzzling experts who feel it doesn’t fit the modus operandi of the obscure ethnic group that allegedly pulled it off.

Chinese authorities immediately blamed separatists from Uyghur Muslim minority that predominantly live in the northwest of the country.


But Gardner Bovingdon, a Eurasia Studies professor at Indiana University and author of The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land, told Vice News: “This attack remains inscrutable to me.”

Eight terrorists wielding blades burst into the station on Saturday morning. Before police fatally shot four attackers and injured a fifth, at least 33 people were dead and more than 130 were hurt. Police said they arrested the four surviving alleged terrorists who had escaped the station on Wednesday.

Large-scale knife incidents periodically occur in the world’s most populous country, David Cohen, editor of China Brief at the Jamestown Foundation, told VICE News. Knife-wielding attackers, usually disgruntled employees, have attacked children in Chinese schools numerous times in recent years, he said.

“Knife violence is a thing in China,” said Cohen, adding that guns are extremely hard to obtain. “If you want to kill a lot of people in China, you seem to alternatively have to use knives, or fertilizer bombs if you’re a farmer.”

Uyghur militants want to establish a new country, called East Turkistan, and secede from China. They’ve launched hundreds of terror attacks in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, where most Uyghurs live, to reach their goals.

China treats the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs like second-class citizens. They’re often barred from living and working legally outside Xinjiang. The Communist regime discourages Uyghurs from wearing the doppa, a skullcap considered a form of religious expression by the state.


But Chinese law does allows Uyghurs to carry knives because they are recognized as traditional dress, Dru Gladney, a Pomona College anthropologist, told VICE News. And an association between deadly blades and the scorned Uyghurs resonates in popular imagination. “The Chinese believe knives are much more terrifying than guns,” said Gladney.

Knives found in the bloodied railway station weren’t traditional handmade, elaborately decorated Uyghur blades, however, Gladney said. The terrorists also carried a black-and-white flag with Arabic script, rather than East Turkistan’s blue and white banner or Uyghur letters.

On Wednesday, Chinese officials said that the suspects had tried but failed to leave the country to train as jihadists before the attack.

Bovingdon said he wasn’t sure if the attackers were jihadists. They didn’t seem like hardened terrorists, he said. Their assault took place far from Xinjiang and left no clear message.

“It just doesn’t add up to me to be a coherent plot to terrorize all of China and somehow start a new discussion about the plight of Uyghurs,” Bovingdon told VICE News.

Sinologists may have to wait years for further details. In the meantime, said Bovington, the incident plays into the hands of Chinese authorities who want to crack down on Uyghur separatism.

“The Chinese government did not plan the attack, but it will certainly make instrumental use of it,” he said. “China says a small number of (violent) Uyghurs doesn’t make them all bad. At the same time, the government increases oppression on everyone after attacks — more armed police on streets, more repression of political speech.”