The pictures were harrowing — bloody corpses sprawled on the floor of a train station.
Chinese state media’s descriptions of the attack were equally shocking: a group of knife-wielding assailants had burst into the station in southern China on Saturday night and slashed to death at least 29 people.
You don’t often hear about terrorist attacks like this in China, a one-party Communist state.
The government-run Xinhua News Agency described the Kunming train station assault as a “premeditated violent terrorist attack” and identified the perpetrators as separatists from China’s restive Xinjiang region.
For readers seeking to understand one of the thorniest challenges facing China’s leaders, here’s some background on the problems in Xinjiang:
1. What is Xinjiang?
Xinjiang is a region on the westernmost edge of northern China. It is home to an ethnic Muslim minority called Uighurs (also spelled Uyghurs), a Turkic-speaking people who have long chafed under Chinese rule and have protested the steady influx of ethnic Chinese into the region. Over the course of centuries, the Xinjiang region has been part of many different — and, at times, competing — empires. It has been under Communist rule since the party took control of China in 1949.
For years, many Uighurs and other smaller Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have agitated against China’s authoritarian government. Their protests are a reaction, Uighur groups say, to oppressive official policies, religious restrictions and widespread discrimination.
The Chinese government has long denied any oppression of Uighurs or any other ethnic group.
2. What do Uighurs in Xinjiang want?
You can’t lump all Uighurs together. Different factions want different things — from more equitable treatment to outright secession from China. Many complaints have to do with China’s religious restrictions.
Just as Chinese leaders try to control other religions, including Catholicism and evangelical Christianity, they have issued strict policies for Muslim Uighurs. They must use a state-approved Koran. Mosques are managed by the government. And Uighur men who want government jobs have been forced to shave their beards; women are forbidden to wear head scarves.
Separatists who seek full independence from China call the Xinjiang region “East Turkestan” and want the right to govern themselves.