2009 Xinjiang China Riots
Paramilitary police in riot gear block a road at the centre of Urumqi in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region September 3, 2009. Reuters

Chinese citizens do not get to vote, deal with censorship daily and live in a one-party state, but they’ve long had one thing many Western societies could not match: a country safe from political violence, where terrorism and threats from radical movements were unheard of. But now, a changing political climate has fueled unrest that has created an unfamiliar fear of terrorism.

On Wednesday, an explosion at a train station in Urumqi, the capital city of the restive western province of Xinjiang, has left three dead, four in critical condition and 76 more injured. State media reported that multiple assailants began attacking people with knives outside the station, before setting off the explosives at the exit of the Urumqi South railway station just as a train was arriving. Local authorities have declared the incident to be the work of terrorists. A recent report by state-run Xinhua News Agency identified one of the three assailants to be Sedierding Shawuti, a 39-year-old Uyghur man from Shaya county in Xinjiang. Shawuti reportedly has “long been under the influence of radical religious thought” and has “participated in religious extremist activities” in the past.

Ethnic Uyghurs, who are Muslim, have long resented the expansion of ethnic Han Chinese into Xinjiang, China’s resource-rich far west, which they allege has produced discrimination and concentrated wealth in the hands of outsiders.

Terrorist attacks in China are still relatively infrequent, but a recent spate of violence attributed to Uyghurs has produced a feeling of unease among citizens that didn’t previously exist.

“Chinese people in general and foreign visitors all consider China as one of the safest countries on Earth [with] few crimes or terrorists concerns if any,” Jiang Wenran, a politics professor at the University of Alberta, said in an email. “The recent attacks on civilians in such an indiscriminate manner may change such perceptions,” he added.

The violence is no longer limited to remote Xinjiang, either. It has reached the center of Beijing itself, which is 1,499 miles (2,411.89 kilometers) from Urumqi, with a fiery attack last fall in Tiananmen Square. A group of people linked to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an organization that was placed on the U.S. Terrorist Exclusion List after 9/11, purposely crashed an SUV into a crowd of tourists, killing five, and wounding 40.

Zhang Mei, a 20 year-old student in Beijing, said in a phone interview that terrorism in the capital city was never a concern for her until last year. “The car crash and explosion in Tiananmen Square was really shocking for me to read about,” Zhang said. “Of course there is some violence in China, but that attack killed innocent bystanders and foreigners in a major tourist spot. That never happens,” she said. “That was so close to home,” Zhang added.

A few months later, in early March, another attack in China compounded her fears. A grisly stabbing at a railway station in Kunming, the provincial capital of southern Yunnan province, left 29 dead and more than 140 injured. The government described it as an “organized, premeditated, violent terrorist attack” by a group of Uyghur men and women originally hailing from Xinjiang. The group entered the busy train station and indiscriminately began stabbing and slashing at bystanders, including children and elderly people.

“The Kunming attack may have been far from where I am, but the randomness of killings showed that it really could have been anyone,” Zhang said.

But Zhang isn’t the only one who has a developing a fear of attacks, even when incidents are not linked to terror groups.

For example, as news of missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 first broke, many on China’s version of Twitter, Weibo, immediately reacted with fears of a terrorist hijacking. Popular Chinese TV host Yang Lan posted on her microblog to her 34 million followers that “more and more signs are pointing to a terrorist attack.” Popular sports commentator Ran Xiongfei also initially thought terrorists were behind the missing flight. “Everything is unknown, but signs of terrorism are becoming more noticeable,” he posted.

In the end, a terrorist hijacking in that case was ruled out, but the looming fear of terrorism didn’t. “We all take trains and subways and security is so relaxed because there was never a reason to have high security, but maybe there is a reason now,” Zhang said.

The spate of terrorist violence has the Party scrambling for a solution that it hasn’t yet figured out. True to form for a government that operates on the mantra of stability, the initial reaction was to manage fear. All posts on Weibo about the Urumqi explosion were immediately blocked on Wednesday, even reports from state-run outlets.

“The government seems to be often caught off guard on how to respond,” Jiang said about the knee-jerk censorship response. “I don’t see a set of sophisticated control measures in place.”

But fear, according to Jiang, is a side effect of a greater goal of the central government: managing public opinion. “One thing the [Chinese Communist Party] wants to lead the ordinary people to know…is that these separatists are indeed terrorists, and they kill and terrify innocent people.” That may not necessarily be a bad thing in the government’s view, Jiang said: the party wants citizens to develop a “negative view of the small group of Uyghur separatists.” And over time, even at the cost of short-term fear, that’s an outcome the Chinese government wants.