A potential terror attack in China highlights ethnic unrest
A car drove into a crowd in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and caught on fire October 28, killing five people. Three passengers in the car were killed in the event, probably in the ensuing conflagration. And 38 people were injured on the footpath, two of them fatally.
Most pictures of the incident posted on Chinese social media websites were promptly deleted. And streets to the square were closed with two AFP reporters being detained near the scene.
Multiple eyewitnesses said the vehicle drove more than 400 metres along the footpath, honking the car’s horn to warn pedestrians, but eventually crashing into a pillar almost directly underneath the portrait of Mao Zedong at the square's main gate.
The car did not avoid people but swerved to avoid obstacles which could have stopped it, one witness said.
Initial reports from witnesses reported the car exploding in the square, but pictures from the scene show only a burning vehicle and no blast debris. Given this information, the smoke rising from the entrance to the Forbidden City appears to be a result of incendiary materials, not a bomb.
However, even without an explosive, the timing and the target make this incident important. A suspected political aspect of the incident is certainly worth analysing because recent government crackdown violence in the rural western province could be creating a powder keg of militancy.
Chinese leaders are due to hold their Third Plenary Session on November 9 – 12. The meetings should put the first-term’s agenda of new President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Kiqiang into action.
Those reforms reportedly include market-oriented economic upgrades to deal with the changing direction of the Chinese market, as well as controversial plans for the restive Xinjiang province.
Xinjiang is where the car incident in Tiananmen Square connects with the big picture.
Right now the details lack complete information, especially around the motivation. But the context of what is happening socially in rural China suggests Beijing’s efforts to control unrest may be radicalising some sections of those communities.
Connecting ethnic unrest in rural China
The car’s driver Usmen Hassan, along with his wife and mother, apparently set the vehicle alight by themselves. The car reportedly had Xinjiang licence plates, but the area both the car and occupants originate from is thousands of kilometres from the specific province recently experiencing violence.
Chinese authorities are now describing the incident as a terror attack, pointing out the incident was pre-meditated and carefully organised. Some Chinese media outlets covering the attack say it was aimed at “undermining stability and creating a separate state of East Turkestan”, a remote region in China’s rural Xinjiang province.
But both descriptions touch only lightly on possible motivations and goals of the car’s occupants.
Police have so far made five arrests in connection with the car crash. Those arrests come at the end of a few recent months of tough crackdowns in the rural western province of Xinjiang. According to reports, authorities detained hundreds of people for questioning in June and August following an outbreak of violence which killed 35 people in June.
While it is still unclear what the motives of the vehicle’s drivers actually were, at least two of the occupants of the burning car have been identified as Uighurs, according to a state security source.
Unconfirmed government reports also state the burning car contained “religious extremist slogans” as well as knives and fuel canisters.
Weapons like these are to be expected in acts of violence in China. There are strict laws and enforcement around the possession of personal firearms throughout the country, and attacks typically occur with whatever the offender has at hand.
Strictly speaking, while firearm violence is very low in China, the lack of access to guns does not preclude offenders from using knives, blunt objects, or even cars to conduct violence.
Setting the vehicle alight in the square appears to have been the goal for the occupants. There is so far no indication they built homemade explosives to increase the destruction of the attack.
Such an attack was almost guaranteed to garner significant international and domestic media coverage, and the presence of hundreds of witnesses served any political motive extremely well.
The political goals of violent theatre
Historically speaking, self-immolation is a political tactic more commonly associated with members of the Tibetan community as a very visceral, and public, form of protest.
Uighur activists on the other hand mostly conduct more traditional forms of militancy, but this time there are emerging reasons to believe the dead occupants of the burning car were Uighur rather than Tibetan activists.
In sharp a parallel to this week’s event – adding reasons to assume Uighur involvement - three Uighur militants conducted a similar affair in 2009 when they drove a car onto a footpath in Wangfujing before setting themselves on fire with gasoline.
Also, Tiananmen Square is much more symbolic than this last attack site, and a highly attractive target for militant or politically motivated groups from Xinjiang.
Especially for some members of the Uighur community, conducting protests to shed an international spotlight on their cause could be something more members of them will undertake in the future.
And with Beijing’s ethnic homogenisation plans for rural China, people like the Uighurs have plenty of reasons to be aggrieved.
But they will have to be careful because attacking targets in eastern China might backfire on them and play into the hands of the Communist Party, who will be looking for any reason to crackdown harder on the restive community.
Many ethnic groups living in China have deep grievances towards the Communist Party and the ruling Han majority, so terrorism is certainly a possibility. The incident could be part of a broader, fledgling campaign of militancy, but it is more likely to be an isolated event by a few individuals.
However, the materials found at this particular incident in Beijing, as well taking into account a historical perspective of similar events, suggest the burning vehicle was probably meant to be interpreted as a political protest.
That the Chinese media and authorities have decided to emphasise the attack as a terrorist incident, rather than a political protest (despite the rumoured slogans found at the site) indicates the authorities are very aware of potentially giving a Uighur political group exactly what they want by publicising their cause, even if it comes only as a by-product of explaining the true motivation behind an incident.
Aggrieved people in China, without access to efficient weapons or an impartial judicial system, often choose the path of political theatre to transmit their troubles to the wider public and the government.
Suicidal individuals in the Tibetan and Uighur communities, and even among ethnic Han Chinese citizens, will try to embarrass the Chinese Communist Party if they believe it will help their cause.
As the ruling party talks about new reforms in the slowing economy and discusses how best to consolidate security – which are both sure to be controversial to any community at the sharp end of those reforms – protests or attacks like this week’s will become more common and perhaps even more violent.
But while frustrating and potentially embarrassing, they will probably not be enough to threaten the party’s long-term agenda.
Nathan Smith has studied international relations and conflict at Massey University. He blogs at INTEL and Analysis