Chinese media has gone suspiciously silent about what exactly happened in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Monday. Initially reported as an accident - and that’s still the line being peddled by the state-run China Daily - it soon became clear that there was something more to the story. By SIMON ALLISON.
What we know for sure about the strange incident in Tiananmen Square on Monday is that a 4×4 vehicle of some description plunged into the crowds milling on the square, before bursting into flames. The driver and two passengers were killed, as were two unfortunate bystanders, while 38 people are in hospital being treated for injuries sustained from the incident.
Even if it was just an accident, as state media reported before going quiet on the subject, this is a big deal. Anything that happens in Tiananmen Square reverberates across the rest of the country, because it really is the heart of China, both metaphorically and literally – it is smack bang in the centre of Beijing, and bracketed by the Communist Party’s leadership compound and the Great Hall of the People, seat of China’s half-hearted efforts at maintaining a legislative body. It is also the backdrop to many of the most significant events in the country’s recent history, not just the 1989 massacre for which its best known outside of China.
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, the square was flooded with police who secured the scene and sent the throngs of tourists packing. In such a politically sensitive area, this is standard procedure. However, this was soon followed up with a concerted effort to censor the dramatic photos and footage of the scene. China’s pro-active internet monitors slowing down internet speeds, restricting search terms and removing photographs of the incident from Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, while two AFP journalists were arrested at the scene and had their equipment confiscated – all signs that something more serious than a traffic accident was afoot.
Sure enough, international media were soon reporting – based on anonymous government sources, and a list of ‘suspicious names’ distributed to Beijing hotels – that the ‘accident’ was actually a suicide attack, and police were investigating the involvement of militant groups from the far north-west Xinjiang Province. Specifically, police were looking into a few people with Uighur-sounding names.
It’s easy to forget just how large and diverse China really is. The image the country presents to the world, which complements western stereotypes, is of a vast monolithic state ruling over a largely homogenous population. Nothing could be further from the truth. The 1.3 billion population speaks 298 different languages, and thousands of different dialects (despite being promoted as the national languages, 400 million people can’t understand Mandarin). Each city and region has its own unique culinary tradition, and little of it bears any relation to the concept of ‘Chinese food’ as we know it in the west. There are cultural divides, and class divides, and, of course, ethnic divides – the government officially recognizes 55 ethnic minorities.
The Uighurs are one of these minorities. There are ten million of them, and most of them are Muslim and speak a language which shares roots with Turkish. In the past decade, the government has aggressively targeted Uighur areas for development, resulting in impressive economic growth and billions of dollars’ worth of government contracts. But the Uighurs themselves have not necessarily benefitted, causing widespread resentment which has resulted in several fatal clashes between Uighur groups and police this year.
As the Atlantic’s Heather Timmon’s explains: “While the economic growth has created job opportunities, they’re not necessarily benefiting Uighurs and other minorities. About half of the jobs posted at the time on a government website required applicants to be ethnic Han Chinese or native Mandarin speakers, and Uighurs are banned from jobs like oil and gas tanker truck drivers because of Beijing’s fears they could be religious extremists.
“Heavy-handed attempts to influence the way Uighurs practice Islam, and in some cases prevent them from following religious edicts altogether, has sparked outrage from activists and local religious leaders. Students, teachers and government workers are banned from fasting on religious holidays, beards and headscarves are restricted, and no one under 18 is allowed in a mosque, among other local rules, a recent report by an American Uighur rights group said. In September, one local government covered a mosque prayer niche that points the way to Mecca with a Chinese flag, which worshipers must bow to while praying, activists reported.”
So Uighurs – like many in China, it must be admitted – certainly have legitimate grievances against the Chinese state. However, if the Tiananmen Square ‘accident’ really does turn out to have been an Uighur anti-government attack, this would mark a significant escalation in hostilities, possibly precipitating a harsh crackdown by the government.
But we shouldn’t rush to judgment.
“Today, I fear for the future of East Turkestan and the Uighur people more than I ever have,” said Rebiya Kadeer, president of the Washington-based World Uighur Congress. Kadeer is worried about the prospect of a government crackdown, and is already suspicious of the government’s version of events. “The Chinese government will not hesitate to concoct a version of the incident in Beijing, so as to further impose repressive measures on the Uighur people.”
Even though the government has yet to present their version of events, Kadeer is right to be worried. A suicide attack in China’s most iconic public space – if that’s indeed what it turns out to be – is not something the Chinese government will dismiss lightly. There will be serious repercussions for whoever was involved – ones that will reverberate through their community. Right now, even if they weren’t involved, the Uighurs, with their recent history of anti-government activity, look to be the most likely scapegoats. DM
Photo People walk along the sidewalk of Chang’an Avenue as smoke rises in front of the main entrance of the Forbidden City at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. (REUTERS/Stringer)
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