Crackdown after China killings may backfire: experts

Chinese policemen patrol a street near the railway station in Kunming, southwest China's Yunnan province on March 2, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Chinese policemen patrol a street near the railway station in Kunming, southwest China's Yunnan province on March 2, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (AFP) - Beijing is vowing to strike back against an unprecedented mass killing of civilians by alleged Xinjiang militants far outside their homeland, but analysts say that may merely speed up the cycle of repression and violent reprisal.

A black-clad gang killed at least 29 people and injured more than 130 in a stabbing spree at Kunming rail station in the southwestern province of Yunnan late on Saturday.

China's top security official was quickly dispatched and urged "forcible measures to crack down on violent terrorism activities", the official Xinhua news agency said, as the public shared horror and anger at photos of bloodied bodies scattered across the floor.

Although knife and bomb attacks occur periodically in Xinjiang, where China's mostly Muslim Uighur minority is concentrated, they have rarely captured the same attention as this first large-scale killing outside the remote region.

The incident could severely harden popular and official opinion on Xinjiang - and provoke fresh outrage as a result, said Mr Shan Wei, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute.

"The psychological impact of this on the Chinese general public will be enormous," Mr Shan said, adding that it would make people "more supportive of hard-line policies by the government".

"It gives the Chinese government a very strong reason to step up its hard-line policies on the Xinjiang or Uighur issue," he said.

"It's a tragedy, really, a vicious cycle."

Analysts say leaders may also feel the bloody rampage leaves them less open to the international criticism often directed at Beijing's Xinjiang policies.

Rights groups accuse China of cultural repression and discrimination in the resource-rich region. And western analysts have tended to discount Beijing's claim to be a victim of global jihad, saying it exaggerates the threat as a pretext to crack down on Uighurs.

China calls that stance a double standard on terrorism.

When a Uighur family of three drove onto Tiananmen Square last October and set their car on fire, killing themselves and two bystanders, outsiders questioned the official version of events and the "terrorist attack" label.

That incident and the Kunming attack came despite Beijing pushing a drive to develop Xinjiang after riots between Uighurs and ethnic majority Han left 200 people dead in the regional capital of Urumqi in 2009 - though it tightened security in the region.

The following year it began encouraging investment and subsidies in the area and enhancing preferential policies toward minorities.

Xinjiang saw 11.1 per cent economic growth in 2013, surpassing the national rate of 7.7 per cent.

"You cannot expect that this problem can be resolved within a few years," said Mr Shan. "You have to keep it up for maybe one decade, two decades."

Rights groups complain that the economic benefits accrue mostly to majority Han, who have settled in large numbers in the area.

Uighurs are losing out as China's economy is increasingly driven by the market, said Mr Barry Sautman, an expert on China's ethnic politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"There's no doubt that there is some degree of discrimination in Xinjiang by Han entrepreneurs," he said, adding that they often prefer workers who speak the same language and do not require extra religious holidays.

On top of that, jihadist ideology outside China was having some influence in Xinjiang, he said, adding that examples of militant attacks such as those in India or Russia could easily be accessed online.

"There are some secular nationalists in Xinjiang... (but) there also are people who obviously are attracted to Wahhabi currents, Salafist currents, etc, and this is occurring all over the Islamic world so it's not unusual," he said.

Islamic extremism gained traction across Central Asia as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Although China's instinct might be to crack down, Mr Sautman urged it to expand preferential policies and autonomy, saying such measures could defuse the desire for secession.

But Renmin University professor Jin Canrong argued that China needed instead to move away from such an approach and de-emphasise Uighur identity, especially as a political notion.

They should be taught instead to identify as people of China, he said, while the status of Xinjiang - technically the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region - should be delinked from any ethnic group.

"It used to be that China stressed very much the identity of ethnic group," he said.

"But from now on I think there will be more stress on the equal obligations and rights of citizens."

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