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Kunming attack further frays ties between Han and Uighurs

KUNMING — Even with the objects of his ire in earshot, the landlord barely lowered his voice to describe his Uighur neighbours, who also happened to be his tenants.

KUNMING — Even with the objects of his ire in earshot, the landlord barely lowered his voice to describe his Uighur neighbours, who also happened to be his tenants.

“During the day, they look like human beings but, at night, they are thieves and thugs,” he said, as a group of elderly women in traditional headscarves drank tea in the courtyard of his building. “Even the police are afraid of them. We all hate them, but there is nothing to be done about it.”

It is fair to say that relations have never been easy between the ethnic Han, who dominate this vast nation, and the Uighur minority, whose traditional homeland is in China’s far western borderlands.

However, since a group of identically dressed assailants rampaged through the Kunming Railway Station in south-western China on Saturday, killing at least 29 people and wounding 143 with long knives and daggers, the official narrative of a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups living in harmony is being tested by the news that the killers were from the western region of Xinjiang.

On Monday evening, state-run news agency Xinhua said the police had arrested three more assailants, in addition to a fourth who had already been arrested and four others who were killed at the train station.

The Ministry of Public Security said a terrorist gang of eight members was responsible for the attack, reported Xinhua.

Until the ministry made its announcement, officials had not made any mention of the attackers’ ethnicity, but there seemed to be little doubt on the streets of Kunming that those responsible for the slaughter were Uighurs.

The episode represents an alarming escalation of unrest that, until now, had been largely confined to a distant region best known among Chinese as a land of sweet melons, colourful mosques and an exotic people fond of impromptu song and dance.

However, decades of Communist Party propaganda has failed to soothe the distrust and suspicion that colour the attitudes of many Han, whose interactions with Uighurs are often limited to fleeting exchanges on the streets of Chinese cities, where Uighurs can be found selling nut-and-fig cakes or grilling lamb kebabs.

“Growing up, we all heard that they carry knives and make money as pickpockets,” said Mr Lu Xing, 33, the owner of a clothing store. “We find them a bit frightening.”

On Monday, censors worked quickly to delete incendiary postings on the country’s most popular microblog sites, while state news media sought to dissuade people from turning their anger into vigilantism.

People’s Daily, the main newspaper for the Communist Party, said: “Don’t turn your anger for the terrorists into hostility towards an ethnic group ... This is exactly what they want!”

Such fears are not unfounded. In 2009, after Uighur mobs rampaged through Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, hacking to death nearly 200 people, most of them Han, a spasm of revenge attacks claimed many Uighur lives.

In Dashuying, the quarter in Kunming that is home to many of the city’s Uighur migrants, stone-faced SWAT officers bearing automatic weapons stood sentinel at busy intersections.

Mr Ali Daoti, 29, a Uighur who cooks at a small restaurant in the neighbourhood and whose wife is Han, said he had always felt at home in the city, a melting pot of ethnic minorities from Yunnan province, but that the mood had changed.

“Now, when I go out onto the street, people look at me with hatred in their eyes,” he said.

Some residents said a backlash had already begun. Mr Anniwar Wuper, 45, a restaurant manager, said his landlord had just evicted him from the apartment he had rented for the past five years.

“He didn’t even give me a reason,” said Mr Wuper, a migrant from Yili in Xinjiang. The NEW YORK TIMES

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