“Tiananmen Square” by rustler2x4, on Flickr
On Monday, October 28th, a car with Chinese Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region license plates crashed into a crowd of tourists in the northern part of the central Beijing Tiananmen Square and burst into flames. Five people were fatally wounded, including three persons from the car (a man of Uyghur origin, his wife and mother) and two foreign tourists who happened to be in the proximity of the incident. 40 persons were injured.
The police force and state guard, which guard the square day and night, evacuated the scene of the incident. Tiananmen is the symbol of China’s cultural and political power, holding the Great Hall of People (the main meeting venue of the National People’s Congress and the Communist Party of China), as well as major tourist attractions of China’s capital.
Foreign journalists who tried to record the place of the crash were removed from the scene of the incident, and a few hours later, the square was reopened to the public. A couple of days later, the police named five persons, also originating from the Chinese Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, suspected to have been in some way connected with the incident. The Chinese authority has characterized the incident as a thoroughly planned and well-organized terrorist attack. More detailed official information and media releases are lacking, and speculations that the crash was in fact a suicide attack were not officially confirmed. Chinese social networks and foreign press raised the dilemma – was the incident well-planned terrorist attack, or was it a political protest by members of the Uyghur national minority? Comments, photos and videos of the incident were deleted from the Chinese social networks and blogs and are continuously strictly censured. The lack of the transparency and any further details concerning the incident may reveal the degree of Beijing’s concerns.
The Uyghur minority
There are many reasons for the concerns. Ethnic incidents and clashes between Uyghur population and Han Chinese members of the military and police forces are not new. They have been occurring since the mid-90s in China’s far west, in Xinjiang, China’s largest province, which is predominantly inhabited by Uyghurs, a Muslim people of Turkic origin who have the official status of a recognized national minority. Up to now, hundreds of people have lost their lives in bombing attacks and deadly clashes between protestors and official police forces.
To the Chinese government, these incidents represent clear separatist-terrorist attacks, which are domestic threat number one to China’s national security. The government blames Uyghur separatist organizations such as ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) – an organization officially listed as a terrorist organization not only in China, but also in the United States, UN and EU – as well as other organizations of the Uyghur Diaspora, such as World Uyghur Congress, based in Munich and known for its peaceful advocacy for the civil rights of Uyghur people and democratization of Xinjiang. Sporadic clashes between Tibetans and Han Chinese in neighboring Tibet are by rule also defined as terrorist-separatist acts of individuals who threaten the stability of the Chinese state and the unity of multiethnic China.
These were reasons enough for China to become one of the first states to readily join and support global war against terrorism, despite its well-known disagreements and sensitive bilateral relations with the United States. In order to combat the “three evils” – separatism, terrorism and religious extremism – the Chinese government has initiated a military and police campaign in Xinjiang province named “Strike hard, maximum pressure!” More than 15,000 Chinese soldiers and policeman are engaged in this campaign, which has been in force since the late 90s.
It is believed that the Chinese initiative to establish the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional cooperation forum, stemmed not only from economic motivations (for China, facilitating the supply of energy sources (oil, gas) from the former Soviet republics), but also in large part from the strong need to strengthen China’s border security.
Data published by the World Uyghur Congress – according to which thousands of Uyghurs are missing, believed to be killed or imprisoned – and similar data by the Tibetan government in exile and data by international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, spoil the black-and-white image of the incidents and ethnic riots that Beijing broadcasts to the world. It is believed that a vast majority of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang is deeply dissatisfied with their position in the Chinese state, and even fear for their security and even survival.
This majority does not support the separatist aspirations of Uyghur extremist political fractions and does not approve of the bomb attacks, which result in nothing but innocent Chinese and Uyghur victims. They believe that they are economically and politically marginalized by the state and that they are systematically denied the legal right (defined by the Chinese Constitution and Law on Regional Autonomy) to their territorial and political-cultural autonomy, as well as basic religious freedoms. They complain about the rising militarization of the Xinjiang province, unemployment, poverty, increased settlement of the Chinese working population in the province, and the systematic exploitation of the rich natural resources of the province (oil, gas, minerals) for enhanced supply to Beijing and other rich Chinese coastal cities and provinces.
The Uyghurs’ previous efforts aiming to reclaim their minority rights have failed. The social networks dilemma regarding the Tiananmen incident raises a logical question – was the incident, in which innocent people lost their lives, actually a political outcry – an act which aimed to point out to the general public the disadvantaged position of one part of the Chinese nation? Was that one of the reasons that made Beijing worry? Or was it the fear that Uyghur protest had for the first time “moved” from Xinjiang to Beijing, and that it can well serve as a model for other discontent groups of Chinese citizens?
The symbolism of Tiananmen, and the need for reform
Tiananmen Square is the best kept square in the world. Apart from the fact that it serves as a China’s political power symbol, it is inevitably associated with the protests against the state, especially to the famous 1989 democratization protest, which ended with military intervention and the death of hundreds or even thousands of protesters. Although heavily secured, the square has been the place of sporadic protests in the last decade. The perpetrators of the protests and the reasons remain mainly unknown to the public, except during a protest of members of the religious movement Falun Gong, which is officially banned as a sect.
Everything that happens in this square goes directly to the world. More detailed facts about the recent Tiananmen incident may create a picture of China as unable or unwilling to solve one of the most pressing domestic problems. Or it may point to the fact that accumulated domestic problems, of which Uyghurs are only one of many, can no longer be solved by merely inventing new economic reforms which would, in the long term, enhance social stability.
Domestic and foreign China experts warn that it is crucial to design a broader package of social reforms which could include a new approach towards minorities. This would not undermine the reputation and the almost unconditional support the Communist Party enjoys among Chinese citizens, but strengthen it. It would be a strong proof that China’s own way of development is a successful one.
This non-profit explanation was originally published at NSPM.