China silent on deadly knife attack in Kunming railway station

Sympathy messages on wreaths are left outside the Kunming Railway Station, where black-clad attackers with knives hacked through crowds, killing 29 and injuring more than 140. The Chinese government has said little about the case.
(Alexander F. Yuan / Associated Press)

BEIJING— On the first Sunday of March, China awoke to sickening news: Black-clad attackers with knives had hacked through crowds at the train station in the southern city of Kunming, killing 29 and injuring more than 140.

Reporters leaped into action, gathering details from victims in their hospital beds. President Xi Jinping urged all-out efforts to investigate the slaughter. The incident was quickly dubbed “China’s 9/11.”

But by nightfall Monday, the state-run New China News Agency signaled that it was time to move on. “Kunming railway station serious violent terror case is successfully solved,” its headline said.


The public was left with just basic details, and since, there has been a deafening silence that has frustrated families of the victims. Analysts say China’s approach reflects a mix of embarrassment, self-interest and legitimate counter-terrorism strategy. At the same time, activist groups that normally would challenge authorities have their own reasons for not pushing for fuller disclosure.

Officially, China has said that six men and two women were involved in the attack. Four were shot and killed at the station, one was captured there and three others arrested elsewhere, officials said. On March 29, state-run media said the four detainees had been officially charged, but gave no trial date or venue.

Besides the suspected ringleader, Abdurehim Kurban, no one else’s name was revealed, nor their ages, nor their hometowns. Authorities never specified whether Kurban was among those killed or detained.

Flags of “East Turkestan separatist forces” were found at the scene, officials said. East Turkestan is another name for Xinjiang, a northwestern province populated largely by a Muslim minority called Uighurs, who have clashed with Han Chinese.

“This attack is a huge embarrassment to the Chinese,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “Certainly this case is far from being resolved, because they have to track the money, the supporters, so many others who were involved. This kind of investigation will last easily more than a year. … No one should say that this case has been closed.”

For now though, no one is publicly questioning how and why the Kunming attackers organized the assault, why they chose that city, why authorities were unable to prevent it and why it took 10 minutes for an armed SWAT team officer to arrive on the scene and shoot five assailants.

“Whom can we ask? No one will respond,” said Yang Tao, a Beijing lawyer whose cousin, Wang Kaikai, was slain. “The government will control what’s released, and there are a lot of things they don’t want you to know.”

In contrast, families of the 153 Chinese passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared a week after the Kunming attack, have received wall-to-wall media coverage and official attention.

“All of them should be valued equally,” Yang said. “But if you compare the effort that has been put in to helping the Malaysia Airline victims’ families, you can see that the Chinese government’s actions on the Kunming families are far behind.”

Nevertheless, it’s too simple to say that pure loss of face is why officials have hastened to cut off discussion, Gunaratna and other experts caution.

“The reason people do things like [Kunming] is to make people feel scared, and overwhelming reporting will help them realize their goals,” said Yang Shu, head of the Central Asia Studies Institute at Lanzhou University.

Endless discussion about Kunming, others note, might stoke anti-Uighur feelings among Chinese, fueling discrimination that could worsen relations. Others say authorities don’t want to afford extremists an opportunity to discuss their motivations.

“The Chinese don’t want to have a situation like in the U.S., where terrorists can get on CNN, and the media gives militant groups a pulpit,” said Jacob Zenn, a Eurasian affairs analyst at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington.

On the other hand, he said, “I’m sure if some of these individual attackers’ stories were aired, particularly the women, [some people] might be sympathetic, despite the crimes committed.”

Authorities blame separatists for violence in Xinjiang, though Uighurs say many cases stem from protests over efforts to suppress their Islamic practices and culture. The Turkestan Islamic Party, a Pakistan-based militant group, praised the Kunming attack in a web video, but did not claim responsibility.

With such extremist groups talking about Kunming, moderate organizations such as the World Uyghur Congress see no gain from raising questions about the suspects or their circumstances.

“In this way, though they have absolutely opposite goals, the [Chinese government] and the World Uyghur Congress here have common aims, which is: Let’s not label all Uighur people as terrorists,” said Elizabeth Van Wie Davis, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines who has studied central Asian terrorist groups.

China’s media controls make it possible for authorities to shut down conversations they don’t like — usually. But at times, such as after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake or the 2011 Wenzhou bullet train crash, public outcries have forced more transparency.

In the case of Kunming, however, victims’ relatives haven’t rallied to exert pressure.

The government paid families of the dead $50,000 in “humanitarian assistance.” But authorities in Kunming strategically kept families in separate hotels, then quickly sent them home. That has made it difficult for them to organize and discuss any class-action-type legal suit, said Yang, the attorney.

The injured, meanwhile, remain in limbo. Zhao Dexiu, 44, a farmer from Hubei province, has spent six weeks beside her husband’s hospital bed. Li Liangwu has had three operations. On the first day, Zhao said, Kunming officials gave them $330. Police interviewed her, she said, but never gave her any explanation for the attack.

Zhao said she heard that the injured will be categorized in 10 tiers, and the worst off will receive $43,000. She and Li are unwilling to budge until they’re paid. “What if he cannot work in the fields? Who will take care of us?” she said. Kunming authorities did not respond to a request for comment.

Wang Hui, who like Yang was related to victim Wang Kaikai, said reporters who contacted her family immediately after the attack are not interested in the compensation issue. “We got the sense they were being discouraged from bringing this up in the press,” she said.

Social media commentators also felt the chill. Li Chengpeng, an ex-sports journalist with a large online following, wrote a Weibo post implying that authorities should reveal more. “To quote a reporter from Kunming: ‘They never tell you what happened. They just want you to hate blindly and be scared without specific reasons,” he said.

Beijing police quickly posted their own message, quoting Li’s commentary and accusing him of being a rumormonger. “Police in Beijing seriously warn such public figures that they should be responsible for their comments,” the message said.

One of the few challenges to the official Kunming narrative came from the financial magazine Caixin, which published a story March 11 saying three of the suspects were arrested Feb. 27 — before the attacks.

That raised questions about whether authorities could have prevented the rampage. The report said the group had tried to detonate an explosive in another town before going to Kunming, and that the female suspect shot dead at the station was the accused ringleader’s wife.

The article was quickly blocked or deleted online.

Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.