Tea Leaf Nation

'Enemies of Humanity'

A coordinated attack at a Chinese train station has left at least 33 people dead -- now the country debates who's to blame.

It's already being called "3.01," or "three oh one," a date that will likely burn in China's collective memory for years to come. According to Xinhua, China's state news agency, on the evening of March 1, around 9:00 p.m. Beijing time, ten or more uniformed assailants wielding long knives and dressed mostly in black descended upon the ticket hall at a busy train station in Kunming, the capital of southern Yunnan province. They began hacking indiscriminately at innocent travelers, killing at least 29 and injuring 130, tolls that may continue to mount. Footage from China Central television shows a knife retrieved from the crime scene that looked about one foot long.

Xinhua reports that police have determined that the act was "orchestrated by Xinjiang separatists" based on "evidence left at the scene." As of this article's publication, state-owned television station reports that four perpetrators -- three men and one woman -- have been shot dead, and one female perpetrator had been captured. If the Xinhua report is correct about the attackers' motives, this would constitute one of the worst terrorist attacks outside of Xinjiang, a restive region in western China, in recent memory. There were about 190 violent attacks in Xinjiang in 2012, according to Xinjiang police, but incidents outside of Xinjiang are relatively rare. In October 2013, a jeep crashed in front of Tiananmen Square, the symbolic center of capital Beijing, killing five tourists and injuring dozens, and the police blamed it on Xinjiang separatists. (Kunming is about 1,500 miles from Xinjiang's capital, and is not usually associated with Uighur separatism.)

Although Xinhua's accusation has not been verified, the report itself was almost certainly vetted and approved by central government authorities, and thus fairly evinces the Chinese government's collective state of mind. The accusation of Xinjiang involvement may foreshadow even more severe crackdowns in a restive region that has already seen its share. Chinese President Xi Jinping has issued a statement, which avers that authorities will "strike hard" at all terrorist violence and "guarantee the life and property" of citizens, but he has not yet commented on Xinhua's identification of Xinjiang attackers.

The news first broke on China's social media -- which continues to function as the closest thing China has to a digital public square -- as eyewitnesses inside the Kunming train station started to call for help. Photos posted on Weibo show pools of blood in the ticketing hall, bodies strewn around, and crowds running from the scene.  "I've never been so scared in my life," tweeted one user on Tencent Weibo, another microblogging platform; "I saw blood spilled right in front of me." "I saw a police officer getting stabbed with my own eyes," wrote a Sina Weibo user. A reporter who spoke to a survivor who saved two six-year olds wrote, "The children saw killing at close range and are close to an emotional breakdown."

Related chatter has dominated Sina Weibo since. "Kunming" is the most popular discussion topic by far, with many lighting digital candles, writing, "pray for Kunming" or "we are all Kunmingers," or sharing graphic images purporting to show the aftermath of the slaughter. Several users wrote that the incident "was our 9-11," in reference to the far more deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil in September 11, 2001.

This attack may also presage a further deterioration in the relationship between the majority Han, who comprise approximately 92 percent of China's population, and the country's approximately 10 million Uighurs, a Muslim minority who predominantly live in Xinjiang. The carnage has "deepened my prejudice against Uighurs," admitted one Weibo user; "don't tell me most of them are good." But online unanimity does not reign. Among the most popular comments on the Xinhua report was a warning: "Let's not say that all Xinjiang people are one way or another, or say the government is one way or another." Another cautioned web users not to "fire cannons based on a map," a phrase that refers to regional discrimination.

Debate surround the attack has turned rancorous, with some accusing others of showing sympathy for the perpetrators. Liberal journalist Luo Changping wrote that in the immediate wake of the carnage, a reporter told him that Chinese press "would never tell you what has really happened," so long as "you blindly hate, inexplicably fear, sleepwalk through life, then die without understanding anything." That post was shared more than 40,000 times, and some accused Luo of demonstrating sympathy for the perpetrators. In another one of the most popular comments about the incident on the massive Weibo platform, one user wrote, "Say it with me now: I oppose all terrorist actions directed at innocent citizens." Those who take innocent life are "enemies of humanity," the post continued, "no matter how lousy their luck, no matter how lofty their motives."

One writer named Han Han, hyper-popular with young Chinese and widely known for his skill in walking right up to the fuzzy red line drawn by authorities without stumbling over, seemed eager to mediate between defenders and attackers of the Uighur minority when he wrote that he condemns terrorism, while also "wishing that we don't place our hatred on an entire ethnicity or an entire religion." That comment has been shared over 200,000 times. But Han has a gift for ambiguity. As facts continue to emerge -- with government pressure on Xinjiang looking likely to grow -- many Chinese will feel forced to take sides.

Yiqin Fu and Bethany Allen contributed research.

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Tea Leaf Nation

Unsheathed

A brutal knife attack on a Hong Kong journalist marks yet another setback for press freedom there

"They cannot kill us all," read the large banner laid on the ground before a group of more than 100 staff members and students of Chinese University of Hong Kong who had gathered to voice concerns about press freedom in Hong Kong. The demonstration occurred in the wake of a savage attack on the former editor in chief of a major local newspaper, who was beset by knife-wielding assailants on a city street in broad daylight on Feb. 26. This latest -- and most gruesome -- incident comes in what has been a rocky year for Hong Kong media, one that has shaken Hong Kongers already worried about the erosion of media freedom in this former British colony, now a special administrative region of China.

Kevin Lau Chun-to, the former editor in chief of Ming Pao, one of Hong Kong's top Chinese-language newspapers, was making a quick stop for breakfast while on his way to work when he was ambushed by two men on a stolen motor scooter. The assailants hacked Lau with a knife at least six times before speeding away. One cut to his back was so deep that Lau's lungs could be seen. Another two cuts severed major nerves in his legs. Later evaluations of Lau's wounds indicated that the assailants were aiming to cause permanent injuries. As of Feb. 28, Lau had survived multiple surgeries and was in serious but stable condition.

Lau's removal from Ming Pao's helm in January 2014 stirred controversy at the paper. While management insisted that Lau's sacking had nothing to do with freedom of the press, many Hong Kong journalists and citizens suspected that it was an attempt to rein in reporting that was unfriendly to China. For his part, Lau never openly disagreed with management's decision and stood side to side with it in calling for his upset colleagues to "give some space" for the personnel change. He took a job as the new media director at Ming Pao's parent company.

According to Ming Pao journalists who spoke to Foreign Policy, the staff suspects that the attack is related to one of the investigative reports of the rich and powerful in mainland China or in Hong Kong, which included Ming Pao's collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to expose the hidden wealth of China's elite in a report released Jan. 21. But no single incident has emerged as the most likely culprit among them. A Feb. 26 Reuters report speculated that the collaboration with ICIJ could have been a factor, but no direct evidence links it to the attack. Also, because Lau had already left his position as Ming Pao's editor in chief more than a month ago, the motive behind the attack is "perplexing," said an investigative journalist at Ming Pao who asked not to be named.

Before the attack on Lau, Hong Kong had experienced several cases involving vandalism or minor violence against local media executives who came across as less than pro-Beijing in the past year. In June 2013, two men clubbed Chen Ping, the publisher of iSun Affairs, a respected online news magazine. Only days later, an ax and a machete were left on the doorstep of Jimmy Lai, the owner of Apple Daily, a large local paper critical of the Chinese government. But according to the Ming Pao journalist, the attack on Lau is "in a totally different ballpark" compared with these previous incidents. "Honestly, it has cast a deep shadow in my heart about my work and my profession," the journalist said.

Reporter Jun Mai of Ming Pao's China desk told FP that Lau is a "very easygoing" editor who also served as a cautious gatekeeper for the paper's reports. Mai said he is "unnerved" by the fact that almost all the cases of violence against journalists in Hong Kong have gone cold, even in a city usually known for safe streets and strong rule of law. "I'm not optimistic that the police will solve this one either," said Mai.

Journalists and concerned citizens in Hong Kong are planning a march on March 2 to show solidarity with Lau and put pressure on Hong Kong police to solve the crime. "We are all Kevin Lau," read another banner on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It continued, "Today they silence us, tomorrow they kill us." 

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