A deadly knife attack at a Chinese train station last week should not be linked to ethnicity, a senior government official said, days after authorities blamed the incident on separatists from the country’s troubled far western region of Xinjiang.
China says militants from Xinjiang, home to a large Muslim Uygur minority, launched a “terrorist” attack in the southwestern city of Kunming, killing at least 29 people and injuring about 140.
It was one of the worst bouts of violence to spill out of the restive region, where more than 100 people, including several policemen, have been killed in unrest since last April.
Fear and resentment between majority Han Chinese and Uygurs spread after the attack, said Zhu Weiqun, the chairman of the ethnic and religious affairs panel of the top advisory body to parliament, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, which meets this week in Beijing.
“Such sentiments – although not widespread – deserve our attention,” Zhu told the official China Daily, adding that the “overwhelming majority of the migrant Uygurs from Xinjiang are good people”.
“Most Uygurs are with us in the fight against separatism and violent terrorism,” he said, in an interview in the English-language newspaper published on Thursday. “They sincerely support the central government.”
The comments highlight Beijing’s concern over the growing frictions between Uygurs and Han Chinese and the potential for further unrest.
Chinese authorities should stop using the attack to carry out “extreme propaganda” and “incite racism”, Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for key exile group the World Uygur Congress, said in an e-mailed statement late on Wednesday.
After the Kunming attack, many residents voiced ethnic concerns to the media. Some businesses and hotels displayed signs turning away Uygurs.
Online accounts have described growing discrimination against Uygurs, ranging from their evictions from apartments to being refused by taxi drivers.
Police in the Yunnan city of Dali were forced to apologise on an official microblog for helping to evict an Uygur man from his apartment after being called in for an identity check on Sunday, the popular Global Times tabloid reported.
Beijing has not explicitly accused Uygurs of carrying out the Kunming attack, but by calling the perpetrators Xinjiang extremists, the implication is clear.
State media have reported that a female suspect was injured and captured in the attack in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, which is hundreds of kilometres southeast of Xinjiang, and that three suspects, including another woman, had been caught. Four were shot dead.
Many Uygurs say they are unhappy at Chinese curbs on their culture and religion, though the government says they are given wide freedoms.
China bristles at suggestions from exiles and rights groups that the unrest is driven more by unhappiness at government policies than by any serious threat from extremist groups who want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.
Authorities say many have links with foreign groups, although rights groups and some foreign experts say there is little evidence to support this.