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What the Tiananmen Square attack reveals about China's security state

China blames a Uighur separatist group for the Tiananmen car attack this week. But that's highly unlikely, analysts say.

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A paramilitary soldier patrols near visitors posing for souvenir pictures at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Friday,November 1, 2013.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

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China’s security chief has accused a Uighur separatist group, designated a terrorist organization by the United Nations, of being behind Monday’s fiery car crash in Tiananmen Square that killed five and injured 40. 

On the contrary, say a number of Chinese and foreign experts on security in Xinjiang. In the restive far western province where most Uighurs live, they say, it may have been the attackers’ very lack of ties to any organization that helped them evade the Chinese police.

Uighur radicals seeking independence from Beijing engage nowadays in “fewer and fewer organized activities” in the wake of successful government drives against them, says Yang Shu, an expert on Uighur separatist movements at Lanzhou University in western China.

“There are fewer contacts amongst them…which makes it hard to collect intelligence on them,” he adds.

Meng Jianzhu, China’s top domestic security official, told reporters during a visit to Uzbekistan Thursday that “behind the scenes inciting [the attack] was the terrorist East Turkestan Islamic Movement organization.”

The Chinese authorities have often blamed outbreaks of violence in Xinjiang on ETIM, claiming the group has ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Washington and the UN put the group on their terrorist blacklists, at Beijing’s request, in 2002, but the United States quietly removed it amid doubts that it really existed, at least in the form the Chinese claimed. 

“Many analysts doubt there is an organized grouping that can really take on the Chinese in a concerted way,” says Magnus Ranstorp, who studies international terrorism at the Swedish National Defense College.

“I think there are violent [Uighur] gangs rather than a large scale terrorist organization,” adds Jiang Zhaoyong, an independent commentator who has studied Xinjiang for many years.

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One notable aspect of the police account of Monday’s incident was that Usmen Hasan, identified as the driver of the car, was said to have been accompanied by his wife and mother. All three died when their SUV caught fire after crashing into the entrance to the Forbidden City.

There is precedent for Uighur family members to carry out attacks together: an uncle and his nephew drove a car packed with explosives into a squad of policemen in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar in 2008, killing 16 and injuring 16, Prof. Yang recalls.

“If family members plan these attacks over the dinner table or in bed it is very hard for authorities to learn about them,” he points out.

At the same time, says Gardner Bovingdon, an expert on Xinjiang who teaches politics at Indiana University at Bloomington, the heavy police presence that blankets many Uighur communities has led to “lots of suspicion that people you don’t know are spies. It is possible that suspicion has led people to be more circumspect” and thus able to evade Beijing’s surveillance web.

Past clashes

Xinjiang, where most of China’s 11 million Muslim Uighurs live, has been struck by sporadic violent incidents in recent years, according to official reports. Foreign journalists seeking to confirm them have routinely been turned away by police; many of the accounts of Uighur protest behavior offered by officials over the years have been questioned. 

Last June, 27 people, including nine policemen, died in Shanshan, near Turpan when men armed with knives attacked a police station, the official news agency Xinhua reported. (One of the five suspects arrested in connection with Monday’s incident lived near Shanshan, according to police.)

Two months earlier, 21 people had died in a pitched battle near Kashgar between men armed with carving knives and local security officials that ended in a fire. In 2011 four policemen and 14 assailants were killed during an assault on a police station in Hotan.

Attacks in the rest of China attributed to Uighurs have been less common, though not unknown. In 1997 a separatist Uighur group based in Kazakhstan claimed responsibility for a bomb blast on a Beijing bus that killed two people and injured ten.

Though the government generally blames violence in Xinjiang on organized, religiously motivated separatists, other observers see them as more random expressions of discontent.

“In my mind they are hate crimes triggered by tensions between minority groups and the Han," says Mr. Jiang. The Han are the ethnic group that makes up 95 percent of the Chinese population.

The attack in Tiananmen Square “is one of many manifestations of widespread and deep Uighur discontent” by no means all of which are violent, says Prof. Bovingdon.

“Still, if it turns out to have been Uighurs with religious motivation self immolating and taking people with them,” as Chinese police say, “it is a striking and novel strategy,” Bovingdon adds.

No group has claimed responsibility for the deadly crash, nor have the police advanced any motive for the attack other than to say that they found a “jihad” flag in the place where one of the five suspects arrested on Monday had been staying.

Uighurs chafe under restrictions on their religious practice and culture and complain that they do not enjoy the same economic opportunities as the Han settlers who have flooded into Xinjiang in recent decades, making Uighurs a minority in their own region.

Those Uighurs who travel elsewhere in China in search of work say they often face discrimination in employment, housing, and treatment at the hands of the police, and often of ordinary Han.  

Hundreds of thousands of Uighurs have moved beyond Xinjiang’s borders, making it difficult for the police to spot malcontents who might turn to violence. “It is impossible for the government to keep an eye on all of them, and nor would it be proper to do so” since most are law abiding citizens, says Yang.

And while Xinjiang is under heavy security, “few provincial governments in the rest of China are very aware or well informed about anti-terrorism security,” says Li Wei, a security expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations and adviser to the government.

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