20 February 2019
Security has been tightened in Urumqi since an attack on a market last week. Photo: AFP
Security has been tightened in Urumqi since an attack on a market last week. Photo: AFP

Uyghur attacks change police use of guns

The violent attacks on civilians by Uyghur radicals have changed policing in China, with tens of thousands of officers being trained to use guns and heavily armed police deployed on the streets of major cities for the first time.

The country has been deeply scared by the attacks that started on October 28 last year when three Uyghurs blew up their vehicle at the gates of the Forbidden City in central Beijing, killing themselves and two tourists.

Since then, radicals have mounted four attacks in public places in Kunming, Guangzhou and Urumqi, killing more than 70 unarmed civilians and wounding more than 200. For the first time, they have shown their ability to launch attacks thousands of kilometres from their native Xinjiang.

The killings have profoundly shocked the public and the government, which has prided itself on its good law and order and especially the negligible level of gun violence, compared with countries like the United States, Brazil and the Philippines.

A principal source of its legitimacy is that its social stability better than that of many Asian neighbours. It’s an unwritten contract with many citizens that they sacrifice a portion of their civil rights in exchange for public order and the ability to walk the streets in safety.

But now residents of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other cities go to work each day in the fear that they could be attacked by someone they do not know who wishes to kill them for no reason other than they are Han Chinese.

The turning point was the attack at Kunming Railway Station on March 1, in which five attackers killed 29 and wounded 143 in just 12 minutes. An easy-going tourist city thousands of kilometres from Xinjiang, it was completely unprepared for such an atrocity.

Of the first team of police to arrive on the scene, only one was armed. He fired the six bullets in his gun but killed none of the attackers; he was himself wounded by a knife, while his colleagues attacked with batons and gas. Only when a squad of special police arrived did the situation change; one of them fired his weapon and killed all five attackers in 15 seconds.

This incident terrified the public, deeply embarrassed the government and provoked a fierce reaction among the ranks of the police themselves; they demanded that the controls on arms be relaxed, to prevent the repetition of such a deadly attack.

The Ministry of Public Security has responded in two major ways. One is to put heavily armed officers in airports, subways, railway stations, shopping streets and other crowded places. Of Nanjing’s 14,000 police officers, 5,000 are now deployed on the streets every day. This visible presence, widely publicized in the media, is meant to deter more attacks and calm the nervous public.

The second way is to provide weapons training to thousands of officers for the first time. Since March, 22 provinces, five autonomous regions and four major cities have conducted “anti-terrorism” exercises in public places to practice overpowering assailants attacking civilians and taking hostages. On April 2, the ministry launched a three-month training programme nationwide to train officers in how and when to fire weapons.

It announced a change of policy from “use weapons with caution” to “be ready to use weapons”.
On May 6, hours after the attack in Guangzhou Railway Station, Fu Zhenghua, vice-minister of Public Security, visited officers on night patrol at Beijing Railway Station and told them to “kill the enemy with one shot”.

On May 12, Beijing police put on the streets 150 heavily armed units in vehicles; their mission is not to deal with ordinary crime but to reach the location of major incidents within three minutes. As the capital and the city with the most domestic and foreign media, Beijing is the most sensitive target in China.

While China’s police have always been well armed, it was ministry policy to keep them concealed, in the interests of reassuring the public. Only special units like anti-riot teams and those used in hostage and hijacking operations carried them.

In 1993, the ministry issued the “the five bans” on weapons, with severe punishments for officers and their commanders who used arms without proper authorization. Since then, most regular police have not used them.

This has changed. The ministry believes that displaying arms will reassure the public more than hiding them, as well as deter potential attackers.

Everyone hopes that this change of policy will achieve its objective and end the wave of attacks.
But thousands of police are now carrying arms and have been encouraged to use them. The risk of people being wounded and even killed in crossfire or by mistake has greatly increased; Chinese society has been militarized in a way not seen since the start of the reform era in 1978.

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Three Uyghurs blow up their vehicle at the gates of the Forbidden City in central Beijing in October, killing themselves and two tourists. Photo: AFP

Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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