Guiding Public Opinion After The Kunming Knife Attack

The Huffington Post, 20 March 2014

This is part of a continuing series for The WorldPost produced by China Digital Times on “user-generated, censor chosen keywords.”

On March 1, black-clad figures entered the train station in Kunming, the capital of the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan. Wielding foot-long knives, they slashed indiscriminately at passengers, killing 29 and injuring 143. The police shot five of the attackers, killing four and capturing one. Three other attackers have since been detained.

China has called the horrific event “China’s 9/11.” Almost immediately after the attack, officials announced that it had been carried out by Uyghur “separatists” or “terrorists” from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Little is known about the attackers, and journalists have not been permitted to independently investigate.

The Uyghurs are a Muslim people who have more in common culturally with other Central Asian groups than with the Han, China’s ethnic majority. While Uyghurs should technically have autonomy over Xinjiang, decades of Han migration into the region have displaced the Uyghurs in numbers and social standing. Xinjiang was 95 percent Uyghur at the beginning of the 20th century, but only 40 percent in 2008. As discontent rises, officials have used a broad definition of “separatism” to include the many Uyghurs, including the imprisoned scholar Ilham Tohti, who have been critical of social and economic policies that favor ethnic Han. Ilham Tohti, a well-respected professor widely viewed as politically moderate, was charged with separatism in February and his name has been blocked from Weibo search results.

The Kunming attack comes just months after another violent incident involving Uyghurs. On Oct. 28, a Jeep plowed through a crowd of tourists and police in Tiananmen Square, then crashed into a guardrail and caught fire. Five people died and 38 were injured. The militant Turkistan Islamic Party released an audio statement one month later calling the attack a “jihadi operation” and vowing that other targets in Beijing would be attacked, but experts on the region debate how effective and organized the group really is. [Some Uyghurs refer to their homeland as East Turkestan].

The Chinese media and propaganda authorities have been trying to strike a delicate balance in guiding online discussion of the Kunming attack. While official statements condemn “Xinjiang separatism,” blocked Weibo searches show that the government is also trying to quell ethnic tensions. “Fur hat” (pi maozi 皮帽子), a derogatory term for Uyghur men, is blocked from Weibo search results. Many Han Chinese believe that Uyghurs are violent and short-fused, and carry knives wherever they go. But voices of reason online warned others not to stereotype all Uyghurs. Some Weibo comments calling for inter-ethnic understanding were censored, as were comments questioning security failures that allowed the attack.

Also blocked are a cluster of terms related to a rumor that an attacker from Xinjiang in Guilin’s Ximenqiao train station hacked to death the owner of a BMW. Xinhua reported that a man entered a woman’s BMW, robbing and then stabbing her to death. While “Kunming train station” (Kunming huochezhan 昆明火车站) has remained unblocked since the attack on March 1, “Guilin train station” (Guilin huochezhan 桂林火车站) has been blocked at least since March 11.

The government has taken more drastic censorship measures in the recent past. In July 2009, a fight between Uyghur and Han factory workers in the southern province of Guangdong sparked anti-Han riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The Internet was cut off in Xinjiang for 10 months afterward.

In a press conference following the Kunming attack, Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian conflated freedom of expression with terrorism by declaring that “90 percent of terrorists in Xinjiang now scale the [Great Fire ]wall and access certain videos to continuously foment terrorism.” Zhang warned that VPNs and other tools that are used across China to circumvent online censorship also “allow terrorism to flow out of Xinjiang to other regions.” Caijing’s report on the press conference was censored.

On March 4, three days after the Kunming attack, 45 people were arrested for “deliberately creating a panicked mood and disturbing social order” by spreading rumors online. Tensions show no sign of abating, and there is precedent for further restrictions on Internet use and speech in Xinjiang in China’s effort to combat terrorism.

Blocked Weibo Searches on Kunming Attack

The following combined search terms have been blocked from search results on Sina Weibo. All were still blocked on March 17 except where otherwise noted.

As of March 4 (These terms were identified by Jason Ng on his blog Blocked on Weibo):
● terror+Xinjiang (恐怖 + 新疆): This set of search terms has been blocked in the past, as shows.
● stab children to death (砍杀儿童)
● Xinjiang+Kunming train station (新疆 + 昆明火车站): This is the only set of search terms that has been unblocked.
● Muslim+Kunming train station (穆斯林 + 昆明火车站)
● Uyghur+Kunming train station (维族 + 昆明火车站)
● East Turkestan Liberation Organization+Kunming train station (东突 + 昆明火车站): ETLO is a secessionist organization formed in Turkey in the early 1990s.

As of March 12 (Identified by CDT):
● Xinjiang+knife (新疆+刀)
● Uyghur +cut (维吾尔族+砍)
● Guilin+Ximenqiao (桂林+西门桥)
● Guilin train station (桂林火车站)
● Guilin Ximenqiao+BMW driver (桂林西门桥+宝马车司机)
● Ximenqiao+BMW driver+Xinjiang suspect (西门桥+宝马车司机+新疆疑犯)
● fur hat (皮帽子): Derogatory reference to a Uyghur man

As of January 17 (identified by CDT):
● Ilham (伊力哈木): Economics professor and Uyghur activist Ilham Tohti was detained onJanuary 15 in Beijing.