China's Uighur Dilemma After Tiananmen

A deadly fire in Beijing, and China's worries about Xinjiang's stability.

On October 27, Usmen Hesen, his wife, and his mother crashed their sports-utility vehicle into the Golden Water Bridge by Tiananmen Square. They killed themselves and two bystanders, and injured dozens of others. Chinese officials immediately called it an act of terrorism. State media reported that the car contained 400 liters of gasoline, iron rods, two Tibetan knives, and a black flag with extremist messages. Meng Jianzhu, Chief of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), stated that it was an organized and premeditated plot instigated by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

In an op-ed featured in China’s Xinjiang Daily, Murat Hinayet, the Director of the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences Institute of Philosophy, reflected the official party line. He stated that

peace-loving people around the world disdain the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement,’ which carried out a well-planned, organized, and premeditated violent terrorist attack. This terrorist attack greatly damaged China’s image in the international community. It also brought shame to the 22 million people of various ethnic groups in Xinjiang, who have an innate sense of right and wrong.”

He furthermore asserted that the Xinjiang “three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism “are a serious violation of fundamental human rights, seriously damage the dignity of the legal system, and pose a serious challenge to civil order.... The nation under the rule of law cannot tolerate criminal acts of violence and terrorism, as such acts trample upon the law, unleash violence, and disregard human lives. Heinous crimes committed” that reflect these evil forces are “ultimately subject to the judgement of history and nailed to historic pillar of shame.”

The CCP has carefully orchestrated and coordinated its response through statements such as these, moving quickly to condemn those involved as Islamic terrorists. It has also rejected domestic and international calls to more thoroughly and transparently investigate the root as well as proximate causes of the incident. Yet, observers continue to raise questions about the Chinese version of events. Various pieces of the puzzle do not seem to fit together as tightly as officials have publicly stated.

Contradictions and Inconsistencies

Eyewitnesses reported that the driver beeped his horn and swerved to avoid hitting innocent bystanders, according to World Uyghur Congress leader Rabiya Kadeer. If Usmen Hesen was a terrorist who purportedly sought to harm as many people as possible, why warn or spare potential victims? She also asked, “Why would a terrorist take his wife and aging mother on an attack? And how did clearly flammable materials such as a flag survive in the burned-out vehicle?” Historian Ma Haiyun similarly called attention to the flag, saying that its presence does not necessarily prove that the family was associated with ETIM. “It is highly possible that the black flag... is simply shahada [Islamic creed] to reaffirm their faith at time of dying.”