The third attack on a railway station in just over two months raises new questions about the potential spread of Islamist militancy in China. The May 6 attack in Guangzhou, the capital of the southeastern province of Guangdong, was preceded by an April 30 attack in Urumqi, the capital of the western Uighur Xinjiang Autonomous Region, and a March 1 attack in Kunming, the capital of the southern Yunnan province. The Chinese government linked the first two attacks to alleged Uighur terrorists, but in Kunming and Guangzhou, there are signs that suggest radicalism may spread into the ethnically Han Muslim Hui population, marking a major change in China’s internal security dynamic.
Reports surrounding the May 6 attack remain fragmentary, but according to Chinese state and social media, between one and four assailants wearing white clothes and white hats and wielding “long knives” attacked people outside the train station at around 11:30 a.m., injuring at least six. Police shot one suspect, who is currently hospitalized. State media have yet to attribute the attack to a responsible party, but if the attackers dressed in white attire as reports claim, they may belong to the Hui minority. Members of this community commonly wear white headdresses; by contrast, Uighurs typically wear multi-colored, ornamented hats.
China has long struggled with its minority population of 10 million Uighurs, concentrated mainly in the far west. The ethnic and religious concerns of the predominately Muslim Uighurs have spawned both peaceful and violent movements for Uighur rights, some even advocating independence from China. Beijing has generally had an easier time working with the Hui minority, similarly comprising nearly 10 million individuals. The Hui are of mixed ethnic origin, blending Han Chinese with ancestry from western China, Central Asia and the Middle East. There are Hui communities in most major cities, though they are mainly concentrated in southern Yunnan and the provinces stretching from the central-western portion of China to the coast, including Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, Henan, Hebei and Shandong provinces.
Although considered an ethnic minority in China, the Hui generally speak Mandarin Chinese. They maintain close relations with the majority Han and are distinguished more by their religious practices than by their ethnic traditions.
In the days after the March 1 Kunming attack, rumors circulated that the Hui population had given sanctuary to the alleged Uighur attackers, implying that the Huis may have aided in their preparation or escape. The specific mention of a “white hat” in Guangzhou suggests ethnic Hui, but such a vague descriptor does not prove ethnic origin or motivation. However, if Uighur militancy has shifted from an ethno-religious movement to one of broader Islamic radicalism that is able to transcend individual minority identities, then China’s counterterrorism strategy must become much more complex as a result.
Somewhat coincidentally, on the same day as the attack in Guangzhou, Beijing announced a new nationwide anti-terrorism campaign, triggered in part by rising unease following the two previous railway attacks. Identifying and targeting suspected Uighur militants is easier than having to shift attention to a much broader question of pan-Islamic militancy.
Currently, there is not enough evidence to show that radicalization and militancy in China has jumped from a small cohort of Uighurs into the Hui population. Even among the Uighurs, efforts at radicalization have been met with scant success, and the number of militants remains small compared to the overall Uighur population. Similar to Southeast Asia, where such external militancy has shallow roots, China’s Hui are not necessarily receptive to radicalization, largely because their somewhat indigenous form of Islam generally differs from the Wahhabi tradition emanating from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. That is not to say, however, that there are not small numbers of individuals open to such ideas.
Beijing has already had a difficult time adjusting its security posture to address the militant focus on China’s highly vulnerable yet extremely important railway sector. The government is also trying to promote public vigilance while avoiding vigilantism. There have been unofficial reports since Kunming of violent scuffles between Han and Uighurs at various rail stations. A rumor-fueled panic could trigger more incidents, adding to Beijing’s difficulties. A worsening security situation could also bring international attention to China, something Beijing has thus far avoided. Most Islamic states have not strongly objected to China’s anti-terrorism campaigns against the Uighurs — even Central Asian countries and Turkey, which claims a shared Turkic origin — but that could change if a perception grows that Beijing is engaging in a more widespread persecution of Muslims in China.
Republishing by The Manila Times of this news analysis is with the express permission of STRATFOR.