Gifts of blood follow Kunming horror


Kunming Railway Station, site of the attacksThey call Kunming the city of eternal spring. The climate, like the surrounding plantations of tea and tobacco, is a source of regional pride. Perched at a heady 6234 feet but geographically closer to Bangkok than Beijing, the effect is a near endless string of warm, golden days and cold, crisp nights. Cherry blossoms in full bloom complete the idyll.

The city is more of a waypoint for Western travellers than a destination though. Downright sleepy compared to other Chinese metropolises, it remains the logical jumping off point for trains north to ancient Dali, with its curled roofs and cobbled streets, or Lijiang and the eastern-most point of the Himalayas.

The Chinese themselves are no strangers to travelling these parts. They enter Kunming like pragmatic pilgrims seeking work, transit through it to reach their universities and schools scattered across the country, and return home in a great tidal movement for major Chinese celebrations. For many, train travel is the most affordable and reliable means of travel.

This regular pulse of modern China makes the attack at Kunming's train station, apart from the alleged political motives, an attempt to slash one the great arteries of China's contemporary existence.

The first my wife and I heard about the attack was a cryptic text message from my tutor. She warned us against going outside because of violence the previous night. Violence of any sort, let alone the Manichean carnage that made international headlines, is not easily associated with Kunming.

We had come to the city two weeks earlier for a university semester abroad. The mild climate, clean air and low cost of living were an attractive trifecta for a couple with a seven-month-old son.

When my tutor mentioned that separatists were being blamed (looking at the casualty rates I assumed it was a bombing), I was confused. This confusion was partly geographical. China is home to approximately 10 million Uighurs, a Muslim minority who live predominantly in Xinjiang. The capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi, is some 2400km away from Kunming. Nor is there any close association between Uighur separatism and Kunming.

Xinjiang is part of China's restive, western-most territory. It shares borders with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kazakhstan among others. It is resource rich and strategically important. Security here is tight and visible. My Lonely Planet says the people here are closer to Borat than Beijing. It's a silly line but not without a point; Beijing is distant in more ways than one.

The Uighurs who call Xinjiang home belong to one of China's officially recognised 56 ethnic minorities. A Turkic people that embraced Islam from the tenth century, their language has much in common with the languages of central Asia. During the tumultuous 19th and early 20th century, sovereign states have been proclaimed, created, crushed and bargained out of existence in this region.

In recent decades Uighurs, under state organised migration, have gone from making up 90 per cent of Xinjiang's population to less than 50 per cent. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) understands better than most the old line that 'demographics is destiny'. Reports of discrimination and abuse against Uighurs are common. I planned to link to an Amnesty International report to illustrate this but the site is blocked from here. [Here it is — Ed.]

The above strategy was always going to be inflammatory. As the demographics have changed so violence has increased. In 2008 Xinjiang was rocked by street protests and bomb attacks. In July 2009 riots allegedly killed 200 people. Xinjiang police claim there were 190 violent attacks in 2012 alone.

When police pegged Xinjiang separatists for crashing a jeep through Tiananmen Square last year that left five dead, it seemed that separatist violence would no longer be localised in Xinjiang. The knifings at Kunming continue this worrying trend.

My tutor, a young woman of inexhaustible patience and charity, was deeply shaken by recent events. Her response however was instructive. Chinese authorities put out a request for blood donors in the city. Giving blood was all she wanted to do.

The city's blood banks have struggled to accommodate the throng of willing donors. The upturned arms of ordinary citizens have replaced some of the blood spilt by the long knives. Their response strikes me as profoundly Eucharistic.

This is not a side point. It hints at the necessary first step for any tangible solution. The Han majority and Uighur communities remain deeply estranged. Saturday's event proves that if nothing else.

However we should look less at the perpetrators and more to those who saved lives through their generosity. If this spirit of generosity can be extended beyond respective ethnic and cultural loyalties to embrace the Other, all parties may be able to see not only their shared humanity but also the legitimate points of difference.

If this occurs then some solution, hitherto only guessed at, might be able to be hammered out.

Evan Ellis headshotEvan Ellis is a freelance journalist currently completing his Masters in International Studies with a China major.

Topic tags: Evan Ellis, Kunming, China



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Existing comments

Thank you, Evan' for a moving and a hopeful article. i especially liked your second-last paragraph.
Maryrose | 07 March 2014

Evan's Eucharistic reference resonates deeply in our hearts. Thank you to Evan and his courageous family for giving us the opportunity to see Christ 's saving love in this part of the world.
Anne Ellis | 07 March 2014

This was amazing Evan. You should do one on Syria. Cause it is a complete mess and I would love to know more or even Russia
Keelan Ellis | 11 March 2014

What an interesting and informative article. Encouraging to hear so much community support to help by donating blood.
Janice Peterson | 15 March 2014


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