Tea Leaf Nation

Mixed Signals from China’s ‘Front Line’

After a bomb and knife attack in the region of Xinjiang, Chinese authorities find themselves in a dilemma.

Photo: Fair Use (Xinhua)
Photo: Fair Use (Xinhua)

Chinese President Xi Jinping just spent four days that, in the heavily vetted and curated universe of Chinese state media, appeared full of smiles. But the images of harmony left behind from that visit look increasingly discordant in light of what came next.

On the evening of April 30, a coordinated bomb and knife attack in the South Railway Station of Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, left three people dead and 79 injured, according to Chinese state media. The news came shortly after Xi ended a four-day visit to Xinjiang, a region in Western China in which reside the majority of China’s 10 million Uighurs, mostly Turkic-speaking Muslims. It’s a region plagued by ethnic tensions and, Chinese authorities aver, the home to an independence movement seeking to found an independent East Turkestan. According to Chinese authorities, Uighur separatists have recently struck elsewhere, most notably in a coordinated stabbing spree killing dozens in a train station in the southern city of Kunming on March 1.  

Following this latest attack, after a brief period during which even some official reports of the incident were censored — perhaps while propaganda authorities coordinated their messaging — Chinese state media labeled the event terrorism. Some Chinese outlets have stated that two of the three killed in the mayhem were suicide bombers. State news agency Xinhua has since declared the case "cracked," identifying one 39-year-old male suspect by name and stating the perpetrators operated under the "long-term influence of extreme religious thought."

The contrast between the bloody images of the bombing circulating on Chinese microblogs and the merry depictions of Xi’s inspection tour is stark. In the days leading up to the attack, state-sanctioned media had devoted significant attention to Xi’s visit, in the process revealing the fine line Chinese authorities walk to telegraph intolerance for violence while also winning hearts and minds in unstable regions. Some of the coverage of Xi played up his ostensible bonhomie with the Uighur population. Xinhua wrote on April 28 that after examining local troops, Xi praised them and declared that Chinese ethnicities were "as unified as one family." A Xinhua photograph dated April 28 shows Xi surrounded by smiling Uighur cadres. Other widely circulated (and state approved) images include Xi donning a Uighur flower hat on April 29, and surrounded by a gaggle of smiling Xinjiang schoolchildren on April 30. 

But efforts to make nice with the locals are, of course, part of a broader plan to stabilize the region, one that relies on a steely resolve to project Communist Party power thousands of miles west of the capital Beijing, or what Xi has called a "strike first" strategy aimed at would-be splittists. The link between the two approaches was sharply evident in an April 30 editorial in party mouthpiece Global Times titled in part, "Let’s bravely go to Xinjiang." Xinjiang lies at the "front line" of counter-terrorism, reasoned the piece, published before the bombing. In order to stamp out terrorism, it continued, "average people" had to "make their own contribution" by treating Xinjiang as a "normal place," and traveling there for business and leisure. An April 29 article in outlet Legal Evening News showed just how carefully authorities track the issue when it noted that over the past two months, Xi had mentioned counter-terrorism domestically 16 times and raised the issue 11 times in statements to foreign leaders. An April 30 editorial in the liberal Beijing News, published hours before the attack, opined that Xi’s visit to Xinjiang sent a "new signal" both domestically and internationally in the effort to control the region; central authorities were "determined" and willing to spend "great efforts" in solving the problems that plague it.

Xi’s visit was intended to underscore his commitment to quelling unrest, but it risks becoming indelibly linked to the reverse in the Chinese public mind. On the country’s social media, where counter-narratives to the official line are most likely to persist, some users explicitly associated Xi’s presence with the attacks. Several comments called it a "slap to the face" and a "blatant provocation" directed at the Chinese leader. One user opined that while Xi had promised to "strike first" against terrorism in the region, he found that "his rivals had struck first instead." A very small minority of users blamed Xi; one user claiming to live in Xinjiang wrote, "If Papa Xi hadn’t come," the attack would "never have happened."

Wu Bihu, a professor of tourism at prestigious Peking University, perhaps spoke for the prevailing Zeitgeist when he wrote on Weibo that "Xinjiang counter-terrorism requires both hard and soft measures." This, Wu continued, includes "using modern information technology and big data to monitor for separatists at home and abroad," combined with softer measures like "removing ethnicity from national ID cards," which currently bear that information.

The schism between hard and soft domestic power has been evident for some time. Dru C. Gladney, a Professor of Anthropology at Pomona College in California who studies Uighur issues, told Foreign Policy that it "goes to the root of party policy toward minorities" more generally: A stance which perceives them as "singing, smiling, dancing followers of the party" who nonetheless require the occasional crackdown. Gladney, who noted that the identity of most of the March 1 Kunming assailants remains a mystery, believes Chinese authorities are being especially opaque. It may stem from concern about mimicry, or copycat attacks, or worries about widespread anger toward Uighurs. But Gladney believes this only creates a "greater climate of fear and uncertainty, which is what these attackers wanted."

Online, the fear is palpable, even if it does not dominate. Many web users have expressed steadfast support for Xinjiang and its people — but they also know they can’t make central policy. In a deleted comment, one user p
that the timing of the attack "will surely cause" Chinese authorities to "exterminate the East Turkistan [movement] ruthlessly. The chaos is just beginning." Members of the Uighur and the majority Han populations would likely unite in hoping he is wrong.

Bethany Allen contributed research.

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University. @dwertime

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