Written by Jackie Sheehan.

So far little has been said on the record about the crash of a jeep carrying three people into the marble balustrade at the entrance to the Forbidden City, in which a total of five were killed and 38 injured. Terrorism or not, it was certainly terrifying for those in the jeep’s path, with high walls to one side and metal railings to the other preventing them from moving out of the car’s path as it sped along the crowded pavement towards Tiananmen. Reports have emerged that police are looking for eight suspects, seven with Uyghur names, and seeking to trace four other vehicles, also linked to Xinjiang. This has prompted assumptions that the long-running conflict over Chinese rule in the north-western border province has reached all the way to Beijing in the form of a suicide attack at the heart of the capital and one of the “sacred sites” of the Chinese revolution.

Prominent Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti has already cautioned against jumping to this conclusion without proper evidence, and urged people not to let the apparent link with Xinjiang further increase the stigma to which China’s Uyghurs are already subject, or to use it as a reason to impose even greater restrictions on the Uyghur population in Xinjiang.[1] It was a security official at Xinjiang province’s official hotel in the capital who confirmed to the Guardian that Beijing hotels were being asked about the eight suspects[2], and although you might think any actual terrorists in town from Xinjiang would be foolish to stay in their own designated hotel, in practice Uyghurs struggle to be accepted anywhere else, often being turned away from accommodation based on their names or appearance, or, when they try to book online, based on the digits of their identity cards which indicate that they are from Xinjiang.[3] The Uyghur men now being sought, whether or not they had anything to do with Monday’s incident, are probably of necessity staying with friends or contacts in the Uyghur community if they are in Beijing.

Alim A Seytoff, President of the Uygur American Association, commented that “Usually the Chinese government is quick to point fingers at the Uygur people … We learned there are arrest warrants for some Uygurs and we were surprised because it’s impossible for Uygurs … to pull off something like that.”[4] A superficially similar incident in Beijing in 2009 in which three protesters against forced land seizures in Xinjiang were stopped by police before they reached Tiananmen Square and set fire to their car at the bottom of Wangfujing, the major shopping street just to the east of the Forbidden City[5], was more the type of desperate self-immolation by petitioners which is sadly quite common in China, and has nothing to do with any movement for the independence of East Turkestan. Although sporadic small-scale attacks within Xinjiang on police or military targets are not unusual, there has never been a convincingly documented incident linked to pro-independence groups outside the province, and given how tightly controlled the Uyghur population is, it is hard to see how it would be possible to organize any kind of action campaign in Beijing or other major cities. If the Beijing crash does turn out to be a Uyghur suicide attack on a prominent building in the capital, it will mark a significant escalation in Xinjiang unrest.

The major protests of July 2009 in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, made clear that Uyghur dissatisfaction with the terms of Chinese rule was reaching crisis levels, and since then no good news has come out the province, though a great deal of confusing news has done. Take this example: in June 2012 it was reported that six Uyghurs had attempted to hijack a plane shortly after its take-off from Hotan heading for Urumqi, by trying to set light to explosives and break into the cockpit using a crutch, but had been overpowered by Han Chinese passengers and crew; two of the Uygurs died of their injuries[6], while three were sentenced to death for the incident and the remaining man to life imprisonment.[7] However, other sources in Hotan say there was no hijacking attempt, only a dispute over seating on the aircraft between the six Uyghurs and some Han Chinese passengers which turned into a scuffle, at which point the plane turned back to Hotan.[8]

It has been a summer of shootings in Xinjiang, and although in one case there appeared to be some local corroboration that the house attacked by Chinese paramilitary police was being used as a militant training camp,[9] in other cases police seem to have fired into properties and killed people without even being sure who was inside, much less having evidence of an imminent threat to life or security.[10] Repression has intensified of the kind of religious activity which is permitted for e.g. China’s Hui Muslims in other provinces, such as boys aged under 18 attending mosque, small religious gatherings in private houses, fasting for Ramadan, men wearing beards and women covering their hair, with veiled women even being denied tenancies in Urumqi[11], and these outward signifiers of Uyghur and Muslim identity are becoming far more common as marks of defiance of Chinese repression.

There is little Han Chinese sympathy for the genuine Uyghur grievances which exist. Many Chinese see the minority as beneficiaries of affirmative action giving them easier university entrance and a chance to have more children than Han Chinese couples are allowed, and will not or cannot conceive of Beijing’s relationship with Xinjiang as one of internal colonization, with all the resentment that entails. While the true nature of Monday’s incident may take time to emerge, it has been plain for at least four years that many Uyghurs find the present terms of China’s control over that territory unacceptable, and that China’s “strike hard” response is barely keeping the lid on unrest.

Sooner or later, the underlying issues must be addressed, and China will have to engage with Uyghurs directly. The Chinese authorities should not complain too much then about having to negotiate with “extremists”, as many former moderates in Xinjiang are dead or in prison and the survivors have been radicalized by their experience. You can’t blow up a social relationship, however, and this same truth that makes terrorist campaigns in pursuit of political goals ultimately futile does the same for purely military approaches to solving unrest. In fact, if China wants to generate armed Uyghur terrorist activity, turning Kashgar and Hotan into free-fire zones is absolutely the best way to go about it.

Professor Jackie Sheehan is the Head of Asian Studies at University College Cork.

[1] “Eight suspects, mostly Uygurs, sought in deadly Tiananmen crash”, South China Morning Post, 29 October 2013, http://www.scmp.com/news/china-insider/article/1342554/eight-suspects-mostly-uygurs-sought-deadly-tiananmen-crash.

[2] “Tiananmen car crash may have been suicide attack, officials claim”, Guardian, 29 October 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/29/tiananmen-crash-suicide-attack-claim.

[3] James Palmer, “The Uighurs, China’s Embattled Muslim Minority, Are Still Seeking an Identity”, The Atlantic, 27 September 2013,  http://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/09/the-uighurs-chinas-embattled-muslim-minority-are-still-seeking-an-identity/280065/.

[4] “Eight suspects, mostly Uygurs, sought in deadly Tiananmen crash”, South China Morning Post, 29 October 2013, http://www.scmp.com/news/china-insider/article/1342554/eight-suspects-mostly-uygurs-sought-deadly-tiananmen-crash.

[6] “Alleged Xinjiang hijackers dead”, Radio Free Asia, 2 July 2012, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/hijack-07022012180625.html.

[7] “Death sentence for ‘hijackers’, Radio Free Asia, 11 December 2012, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/death-12112012185221.html.

[8] “Alleged Xinjiang hijackers dead”, Radio Free Asia, 2 July 2012, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/hijack-07022012180625.html.

[9] A local resident speaking on condition of anonymity told Radio Free Asia that a home-made rocket launcher at the farm had exploded while being tested, which was how the place had been discovered by armed police who then moved in and killed twelve of the men present (“Up to 12 Uyghurs Shot Dead in Raid on Xinjiang ‘Munitions Center’”, Radio Free Asia, 17 September 2013, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/raid-09172013222650.html.

[10] “Five Uyghurs killed in third straight week of fatal shootings in Xinjiang county”, Radio Free Asia, 14 October 2013, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/shooting-10142013202904.html.

[11] “Veiled Muslim Uyghur Woman Evicted from Rented Home”, Radio Free Asia, 27 August 2013, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/eviction-08272013174741.html.

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