KUNMING, China — Deng Wei, his wife and 8-month-old baby were having dinner in a little restaurant in an alleyway next to this city’s main train station Saturday night when a man and a woman, both in black, came striding by, clutching large knives.
“They were headed toward the station, and I decided to follow them, at a distance. They began slashing people, and when they passed the police kiosk on the corner of the square, the officers did nothing to stop them,” Deng, 26, recalled Sunday in front of the station. “People began screaming. It was chaos.”
The attackers charged into an open-air pavilion used as a waiting area, wordlessly plunging their knives into people at random, Deng and other witnesses said. At least eight more attackers followed, rushing into the ticket sales office and cutting down people as they queued, leaving victims lying in pools of blood on the floor.
By Sunday evening, the death toll from what one newspaper affiliated with the Communist Party called “China’s 9/11” stood at 29 dead and 130 injured. More than 70 remained hospitalized in critical condition. Four attackers were also slain, shot dead by police at an intersection just in front of the station, and one woman was said to be in custody. But that meant at least five other suspects remained at large.
Authorities and witnesses said the assailants were Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority from northwestern China’s Xinjiang region. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but on TV, Chinese authorities displayed what they said was a black flag recovered at the scene calling for independence for the region, which some Uighurs refer to as East Turkestan.
Security chief Meng Jianzhu, visiting the wounded in Kunming, pledged to “mobilize all resources and adopt all means to break this case," which he said exposed the “inhuman and anti-social nature of terrorists devoid of conscience.”
But whether Saturday’s shocking attack leads to a momentous shift in Chinese authorities’ approach to Uighur unrest and terrorism in general remains to be seen.
Chinese leaders have for years pledged to bring stability — and economic opportunity — to ethnically divided Xinjiang. Tensions between Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese have been simmering for decades, and a riot in 2009 left nearly 200 dead in the city of Urumqi. Since then, Xinjiang has been beset by a steady string of deadly clashes at police stations and other government facilities.
Analysts said the location and nature of Saturday’s attack — a “soft target” in the balmy, tourist-friendly capital of Yunnan province in southwestern China -- indicates further bloodshed well beyond Xinjiang’s borders is likely.
“It shows that Uighurs are, like Chechens in Russia, expressing their discontent throughout the country, not just where they are based,” said Dru Gladney, a professor at Pomona College and author of “Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People's Republic."
“It’s a sad day for China and a sad day for Uighurs,” he added. “Many Han think all Uighurs are violent, and this could lead to a real backlash.”
Elizabeth Van Wie Davis, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines who has studied Uighur separatism, said the timing — just ahead of two high-profile political gatherings in Beijing this week — was not coincidental.
“Doing it right before the Beijing meetings brings their cause and concerns to the attention of the country, and the international community,” she said.
Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, noted that there have been more than 200 incidents of violence in Xinjiang in the past 12 months, but most of those were on a small scale.
“This is very significant in terms of the numbers of attackers and victims,” he said. “It likely involved planning over several months and it shows they have developed the capacity for long-range attacks.”
Gunaratna called Saturday’s assault “even more significant” than another high-profile attack carried out by Uighurs in October, when a jeep plowed through pedestrians in Tiananmen Square and caught fire. Three Uighurs in the vehicle and two pedestrians died in that attack, and 40 others were injured.
Kunming has a very small population of Uighurs who work almost exclusively in menial jobs. Gunaratna said it was most likely that the attackers traveled to Kunming but had some kind of local support.
“This scale of attack can’t be carried out without local intelligence,” he said, adding that the assault also represented an intelligence failure on the part of security authorities.
Many Uighurs complain of discrimination at the hands of Han Chinese and chafe at policies that they say restrict their religious and ethnic traditions and freedom of assembly and movement. Uighur leaders also complain they have few avenues to express grievances.
They point to cases including that of Ilham Tohti, a Beijing-based professor widely regarded as an articulate and moderate advocate on Uighur issues, who was recently detained by Chinese authorities and charged with separatism.
Gladney said Chinese authorities need to find a way to give Uighurs a greater say in policy making and development projects, as well as occupational opportunities. “They need to get Uighurs more engaged,” he said. “Many feel marginalized and cut out.”
But Davis noted that in many Uighur communities, Uighurs who hold positions in government or on the police force are considered traitors, and reversing such attitudes isn’t easy.
In Kunming, university student Li Ming, 17, said Saturday’s attack was likely to make her more wary of Uighurs.
“I will be more on alert for Uighurs now when I meet them,” said Li, who was canceling a train trip out of fear that there might be more violent incidents in Yunnan. “I wouldn’t say I hate them. I know there are all kinds of Uighurs; some are bad guys but there are good ones too. But I will be more careful.”
Chen Bing, 39, another local resident, said the government “needs to do a better job in areas like Xinjiang and Tibet, improve the security situation and create more jobs for the people in those areas.”
“If you look at the options for Uighurs in Kunming, the only options are selling skewers and melons by the road,” he said. “They’re very low-end jobs.”
On Sunday, there were no Uighurs to be found on the streets of Kunming; it was unclear whether the normal contingent of kebab and melon hawkers had stayed away voluntarily or had been rounded up by authorities.
At the train station Sunday evening, a heavy contingent of police, a few armed with large rifles, stood at the main plaza. An impromptu memorial of flowers and candles lit up the night, attracting more than 100 onlookers.
But aside from a few officers still gathering evidence in the open-air waiting area, the station was back to normal. There were no security checks for pedestrians or automobiles coming into the plaza or customers entering the ticket hall.
Deng, who first saw the attackers while having dinner, was anxious.
“I have my 8-month-old child and my wife here ... and we couldn’t leave as planned last night,” he said. “I am really scared, because the police didn’t do a lot to stop them last night, and today the police presence is not sufficient.”
Special correspondent Tommy Yang in Kunming and Beijing-based staff writer Barbara Demick contributed to this report.