RPI Author Allen Carlson: “Reflecting on the Kunming Terrorist Attack One Month On: Comparisons with September 11th, and the Broader Implications for China”

RPI Author Allen Carlson: “Reflecting on the Kunming Terrorist Attack One Month On: Comparisons with September 11th, and the Broader Implications for China”

Allen Carlson, Associate Professor in the Department of Government, Cornell University, discusses the implications of the Kunming Terrorist attack for China’s national identity and ethnic conflict.

In Emily T. Yeh’s excellent new book, Taming Tibet (Cornell University Press, 2013), one of her interlocutor’s darkly warned, “China will have its terrorists, its September 11” (p. 57). Unfortunately, the March 1 Kunming train station terrorist attack proved this observation to be all too prophetic as the incident is now widely viewed by many Chinese as their version of America’s  2001 experience. Even if this comparison might be considered by some to be over-blown, the fact that it has taken root within China speaks to three significant and troubling trends within the country.

First, the attack underscores the deeply fractured state of relations between the majority Han Chinese and minority populations now living within the People’s Republic of China (PRC). To be clear, not all non-Han peoples in the PRC are contesting the political status quo within the country.  However, in recent years, two of the most important of such groups, the Tibetans and Uyghurs, have quite openly expressed their discontent with Chinese rule. The Tibetans took the lead on this score when violent protests erupted in Lhasa in March of 2008. In Xinjiang the Uyghurs followed suit with the July 2009 Urumqi riots.  Subsequently, Tibetan areas have been rocked by a wave of self-immolations, and Xinjiang has been roiled by repeated incidents of Han-Uyghur violence. In other words, the Kunming attack placed a violent exclamation mark on a development that was already well underway.

Second, it elicited an unprecedented flood of popular condemnations within Chinese social media. This blunt commentary denounced the perpetrators of the attack, and, more broadly, disparaged the Uyghurs as violent, dangerous, threats to the Chinese nation. In this sense, the virulent online response to the attack demonstrated the extent to which some in China have grown impatient with the perceived slights the Han Chinese have suffered at the hands of the country’s minorities. On the other hand, much of the online activity also admonished Beijing for its inability to discipline such groups. This backlash reveals just how contested Beijing’s orthodox narrative of a singular Chinese national identity, one that encompasses both Han and non-Han peoples, has become, and not just by those on the country’s territorial periphery. Such an understanding of ethnic relations is the product of a burgeoning sense of pride among Chinese netizens in a narrower understanding of what the Chinese nation is (Han rather than multi-ethnic).

This shift then reveals the third main implication of the Kunming attack.  In short, nationalism, when it is framed with reference to the outside world tends to bring many within China together against external foes. In contrast, when the primary antagonist to the Chinese nation is instead found within the boundaries of the PRC, in the form of Tibetan or Uyghur separatism, the situation is much more volatile (in regards to risks to the existing political status quo). First, the odds for inter-ethnic violence (rather than inter-state conflict) to escalate is all the more real and less easy for Beijing to control. Second, if the state does not do enough to protect Han Chinese in such situations, it may find itself labeled as anti-nationalist and subject to challenges to its legitimacy. Third, if it acts strongly in minority regions to quell unrest, it may only strengthen anti-Chinese sentiment there and fuel further uprisings.

As a result of these trends, China’s leaders are now between a rock and a hard place, with no easy way to satisfy either their country’s Han Chinese majority or minority nationalities. Therefore, unfortunately, it is all too likely that yet another incident of ethnic conflict will take place within the country’s borders in the future. It is sadly not a question of whether or not an incident will occur, but rather when, where, and how de-stabilizing it will be.