Chinese president Xi Jinping warned that his country faces "rampant momentum" from terrorists after knife-wielding attackers killed 29 and injured more than 140 at a railway station deep in the country's southwest.
The violence brought into sharp relief the seething discontent that underlies China's often harsh handling of critics and minority groups, and the risks that can accompany such policies.
The country's latest nightmare unravelled Saturday evening in Kunming, the capital of distant Yunnan province not far from China's borders with Vietnam and Myanmar. Photos shared on social media showed pools of blood lying on tiled floors in the ticket area of the railway station. First-person accounts posted online offered a glimpse of utter panic as the attackers — Chinese authorities said there were at least 10 — slashed through crowds, leaving people running for their lives.
"I saw two people holding big knives attacking people, whoever they saw," wrote Lu Haiyan, who identifies herself as a local journalist, on social media site qq.com. "So horrifying! I have never been so scared," she wrote. Another social media user said of the attackers: "those animals wouldn't let go of children."
Just hours after the violence, which also saw four of the attackers killed, Chinese authorities pinned the blame on "Xinjiang separatist forces." That added to an increasingly lengthy list of terrorist actions Beijing has ascribed to a restive region with a large population of Muslim Uighur people.
The attribution left some doubtful: China has rushed to attribute a series of attacks — including a suicide bombing on the threshold of Tiananmen Square last August — on Uighur activists, but offered scant proof.
Xinjiang is a vast province, larger than Quebec, on China's western flank. Its capital of Urumqi is as far from Kunming as Albuquerque, New Mex. is from Toronto. "Until we get better evidence of who exactly was involved, I think it's important to have a certain skepticism," said Dru Gladney, a researcher at Pomona College who has spent 30 years specializing in Xinjiang and Chinese Muslim groups.
But, he said, "if it is indeed Uighurs, it is a whole new level of conflict."
In 2013, activists counted 219 deaths from violence in Xinjiang, amid an increasingly forceful Chinese surveillance and security crackdown in the years following riots in July, 2009 in Urumqi that left 197 dead. Those riots were rooted in a bid to demand justice for a killed Uighur factory worker; they were followed by an overpowering Chinese response that, according to Amnesty International, included arbitrary detention of hundreds and the disappearance — and torture — of numerous others.
China has made Xinjiang a central prong of a western expansion that has sought both to tap the region's natural resources, and to use it as a strategic gateway for an increasingly important trade with Central Asian states, whose energy and minerals Beijing covets. Beijing has poured money into Xinjiang, and justifiably boasted of the rising standards of living in the region. But it has also overseen a massive wave of immigration to the region by ethnic Han Chinese, who have made Uighurs a minority in their own homeland. Many Uighurs now feel increasingly squeezed out culturally and politically — sometimes in very overt ways, such as in government job postings that exclude them.
Xinjiang is "critical to China's future, and I think because it is so important, there has been this heavy-handed top-down policy of development," Mr. Gladney said. "But I think it's blowing up in China's face."
Sean R. Roberts, a cultural anthropologist at The George Washington University who has studied the Uighur population, compares their plight to that of Native Americans in the mid to late-1800s, when the U.S. west-ward expansion involved "essentially overwhelming and completely marginalizing native populations."
China has tended to add to the problem by portraying Uighurs as backwards, and violent. That has engendered little sympathy. On Chinese social media on Sunday, some voiced racial fear: "now when I walk on the road and see Xinjiang people, I will feel scared," one person wrote.
Critics suggest China has done too little to empower the Uighur population, disenfranchising a group that has, in decades past, felt surprising warmth toward Beijing. Now the rise of violence, in particular the Kunming railway attack that appeared better-orchestrated than others, "underscores the enormous problem China has on its hands if it doesn't get it right. It's not just going to be in Urumqi or in Kashgar. It's going to be throughout the country," warned Mr. Gladney.