By Hannah Beech
March 6, 2014

A Shocked China Restores Order After A Deadly Rampage

It’s been dubbed China’s 9/11. On March 1–now 3-01 in local parlance–assailants brandishing daggers, machetes and cleavers fanned out through a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming, slashing anyone in their path. By the time their stabbing rampage ended, the attackers had killed 29 people and injured more than 140 others. Police blamed the massacre on separatists from the northwestern region of Xinjiang, home to the Uighur ethnic minority.

Just two days after the incident, state media said the Kunming case was closed. A gang of eight–six men and two women–had unleashed the carnage. Four were shot dead at the scene; the others were captured. The Chinese security state may not have been able to prevent a terrorist attack in a pleasant provincial capital, but it does know how to restore order. State media reported that shops around the railway station had reopened. The station too was operating normally. “Serious violent terrorist case successfully solved,” said Xinhua, the Chinese news agency that acts as the government’s mouthpiece.

Yet ordinary Chinese people, who flocked to social media to grieve in the aftermath of the attack, were left with questions unanswered by the censored local media. (Chinese journalists were initially instructed not to publish their own reporting and to use only stories provided by Xinhua.) Why Kunming? What motivated the Uighur attackers? Was it separatist sentiment, radical Islam or a toxic melding of the two?

Over the past few years, Xinjiang has endured numerous bloody clashes between Uighurs–a Turkic minority that claims two short-lived republics among evidence of its right not to be ruled by China–and Han, China’s predominant ethnic group. At least 100 people perished in 2013 alone. With each violent outbreak, the narratives have diverged. Was the Chinese state using a fight against terrorism to justify its enduring repression of Uighurs? Or was Beijing simply dealing with cold-blooded insurgents no different from those in Iraq or Afghanistan?

Now the violence has metastasized beyond Xinjiang’s borders, bringing a faraway fight into China’s symbolic heart. Last October, police blamed a Uighur suicide attacker, who was accompanied by his wife and mother, for plowing a car through crowds in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing two tourists. The Kunming attack proved far bloodier–with innocent passersby slaughtered, perhaps solely for being Chinese.

Chinese state media have lashed out at some Western press outlets for declining to label the March 1 rampage as terrorism. The U.S. embassy in China–which in a statement called the carnage a “horrible and totally meaningless act of violence,” as opposed to outright terrorism–was criticized in a Xinhua op-ed for a “persistent double standard in the global fight against terrorism. Their leniency for the terrorists is sending signals of encouragement to potential attackers.” (A U.S. State Department spokesperson later said the Kunming massacre was indeed “an act of terrorism.”) Meanwhile, a nation unused to such acts continues to mourn. An online campaign declared, “We are all Kunming people.”

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This appears in the March 17, 2014 issue of TIME.

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