Deafening silence follows Kunming railway station hacking attack

Families of knife victims at railway station are frustrated by the lack of information on a case authorities were quick to insist is closed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 April, 2014, 9:49pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2014, 8:32am

On the first Sunday of March, China awoke to sickening news: Attackers with knives had hacked through crowds at the train station in the southern city of Kunming , killing 29 people 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".

Yet by nightfall that Monday, Xinhua had signalled 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 silence that has frustrated victims' families. Analysts say Beijing's approach reflects a mix of embarrassment, self-interest and legitimate counter-terrorism strategy.

At the same time, activist groups that would normally challenge authorities have their own reasons for not pushing for fuller disclosure.

Officially, Beijing 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.

The Chinese don’t want a situation … where terrorists can get on CNN

Besides the suspected ringleader, Abdurehim Kurban, no other name was revealed. 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 region populated largely by minority Uygur Muslims, who have clashed with Han Chinese.

"This attack is a huge embarrassment to the Chinese," says 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."

Unanswered questions

No one is publicly questioning how and why the Kunming attackers organised 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.

"Who can we ask? No one will respond," says 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 154 Chinese passengers on Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which disappeared a week after the Kunming attack, have received huge media coverage and official attention.

"All of them should be valued equally," Yang says. "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, experts say.

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

Endless discussion about Kunming, others note, might stoke anti-Uygur feelings among Chinese, fuelling 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 US, where terrorists can get on CNN, and the media gives militants a pulpit," says Jacob Zenn, a Eurasian affairs analyst at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington. "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 Uygurs 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 extremists talking about Kunming, moderate organisations such as the World Uygur 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 Uygur Congress here have common aims, which is: let's not label all Uygur people as terrorists," says Elizabeth Van Wie Davis, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines who has studied central Asian terrorist groups.

Victims' compensation

Media controls make it possible for the authorities to shut down conversations they don't like. 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 US$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 organise and discuss any class-action-type legal suit, says 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 says, Kunming officials gave them US$330. Police interviewed her, she says, but never gave her any explanation for the attack.

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

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

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 rumourmonger. "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 on March 11 saying three of the suspects were arrested on February 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 woman suspect shot dead at the station was the accused ringleader's wife.

The article was quickly blocked or deleted online.