China's Global Times ran a story on Sunday calling the knife attack that left at least 29 dead in the Kunming railway station, "China's 9-11." The story went on:
Any explanation for the attack, like those in previous cases elsewhere in China, would be feeble at the bloody scene, where mothers, sons and daughters were slaughtered by strangers. Nothing justifies such a carnage against innocent civilians.
This was a random attack, with the sole purpose of causing the greatest casualties and impact within the shortest period of time.
It seems that the terrorists have had their way. Their killing spree has left 29 dead and over 130 injured, shrouding the southwestern city and the whole nation in terror.
Although Americans would certainly sympathize with the victims and their families, they would have a hard time seeing the Kunming attacks and 9/11 attacks as equivalents. The differences in perceptions shines a spotlight on the gulf in world views between the peoples of the two countries.
Honoring the Kunming victims, China, 2014
For most Chinese (and 94% of Chinese are Han), as the above quote suggests, the attacks are acts of terrorism against innocents. Nothing could possibly justify these actions. By contrast, for Americans, the Kunming incident fits primarily into a broader story about China's suppression of ethnic minorities. The attackers appear to be Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic group living mainly in China's Xinjiang region. Evan Osnos, writing in The New Yorker today, captured this sentiment in his post-mortem (literally), by not emphasizing the death toll and victims in Kunming, but the harsh conditions Uyghurs face in Xinjiang that could prompt them to take such drastic action.
(For those wanting more background, my colleague, Gardner Bovingdon, has written one of the most extraordinary books on this topic, The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land, 2010, Amazon. His book is distinctive not only for the depth of its insights, but also for the balance he brings to the analysis, not accepting any one side's propaganda at face value.)
Honoring the 9/11 victims, Toledo, Ohio, 2002
Such an interpretation leaves most Chinese dumbfounded. They can't see how there could be any reasonable justification for the attacks, which somehow might legitimate the deaths of the victims. And even if it makes sense to dig into the motives of the perpetrators, they would likely be surprised that the discussion turned in that direction within hours of the attack, as soon as Beijing identified the likely assailants.
The equivalent turn would be those who in the immediate wake of 9/11 explained the attacks as a response to US policies and military actions in the Middle East. The most famous domestic voice came in a brief commentary by Susan Sontag in, ironically, The New Yorker, in its September 24, 2001 issue.
Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq?...
...A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense. But the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality. The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.
She faced a storm of criticism for her remarks. But with a few substitutions, this could replicate analyses of Chinese heavy-handed policies and hubris that have generated deep-seated resentment by Uyghurs. It's not surprising that Chinese would be just as pained by potential justifications of the Kunming attacks as Americans were caught off guard by Sontag's analysis.
That I see parallels in the gulf between how Americans and Chinese see 9/11 and 3/1 does not mean that 9/11 and 3/1 are genuinely equivalent with each other. Simply in terms of scale, there is no comparison. Moreover, in Kunming the targets were in a common transporation hub in a southwestern city located in a province populated with a large number of other ethnic minorities. The 9/11 attacks were directed at the physical and symbolic hearts of American economic, political, and military power. The car bombing a few months ago in Tiananmen Square comes closer but still doesn't seem to me to carry the same symbolic weight of simultaneous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (not to mention the potential final target of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania).
The crux of the comparison between 9/11 and 3/1, though, comes down to the legitimacy of analyzing the motives of the attackers. In the US, once the initial wounds of 9/11 healed, and particularly in the wake of the 2nd Iraq War ("war of choice"), there's been some consideration of how the US presence in the Middle East, as well as how the US has carried out the "war on terrorism" has generated anti-Americanism and been a recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda. But that navel-gazing has been limited. The US military has for the most part departed Iraq and is winding down in Afghanistan, but the American political establishment views such moves as tactical shifts in terms of what is best needed and effective in maintaining US global dominance. The American government has not waivered from the fundamental position that it could and should operate anywhere on the planet militarily to protect its interests.
Although it would be wise for Beijing to consider how its policies in Xinjiang have generated antipathy, dissent, and violent responses, I don't know if now, just days after 3/1, is the right time for our attention. For the time being, Kunming seems the place deserving our focus. Even if one sympathizes with the desire for genuine Uyghur autonomy, aren't we all Kunmingers? No matter how unfair Beijing's policies are, let's agree that stabbing travelers standing in a train station on a Saturday night, or flying planes into high-rise offices where employees are diligently working on a quiet Tuesday morning can never be justified.