China's Uighur Dilemma After Tiananmen

November 15, 2013 Topic: TerrorismSecurity Region: ChinaAsia

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.”

An investigation by Radio Free Asia uncovered that Usmen Hesen may have lost relatives during the 2009 unrest in Urumqi. In addition to the many victims who died during the riots, thousands more reportedly disappeared during the security crackdown. Moreover, an old classmate argued that Hesen’s younger brother, Ablikim, died under mysterious circumstances. The body and motorcycle were both found in an irrigation canal. “Police said it was [a] traffic accident,” said classmate Qasimjan Mijit. “I remember him blaming his brother’s death on the Chinese. But I did not know whether he was referring to the Han Chinese or the Chinese government.” Mijit added that Usmen Hesen worked in Chinese cities and expressed concern over the future of the Uighur people, allegedly saying that “life is always hard for Uighurs no matter where they live.” If Usmen Hesen—either directly or indirectly—blamed the Chinese government for the problems that befell his family, then it may explain why the three Uighurs sought to make such an extreme political statement. Conversely, the former head of Usmen Hesen’s village claimed that the man vowed revenge when local police raided a local mosque and subsequently demolished its courtyard, which he had helped fund.

Policies, Pride, and Prejudice

Some scholars, reporters, and activists consequently suggested that repressive domestic policies might have contributed to the attack. The Wall Street Journal bluntly argued that “Beijing’s repressive policies have become a self-fulfilling prophecy, driving some Uighurs to acts of terrorism. However, there is little evidence of effective organization behind the attacks.” Similarly, George Washington University professor Sean R. Roberts, who has undertaken substantial fieldwork in Xinjiang, questioned whether the attack was a well-organized act of terrorism or a crudely-executed and desperate attempt to draw attention to a repressed populace. “For the last decade, the Chinese government has created a virtual police state within Xinjiang, employing enhanced surveillance of Uighur citizens, actively repressing Uighurs' political voices, and greatly curtailing Uighur religious practices. It has also,” added Roberts, “vastly reduced Uighurs' access to education in their own language and has limited Uighur language publications of original reading materials.”

Sarah Cook, the senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House, published an article exhorting observers to treat official Chinese accounts with skepticism. The “Chinese government’s definition of ‘terrorism’ is much broader than is generally understood overseas. Uighurs have been given harsh sentences, on charges like ‘endangering state security’ or ‘inciting separatism’ for actions as innocuous as granting a media interview.... But one should not be skeptical based solely on the regime’s mistreatment of Uighurs and its media controls,” argues Cook. CCP “officials have lied about these kinds of incidents before, with real human costs.” She proceeds to provide examples of controversial Chinese media coverage of perceived Falun Gong protesters and terrorist attacks, the details of which appear inconsistent and even doubtful when held up to close scrutiny. Cook argued that “misrepresenting the incident could inflict real-world damage, reducing international support for innocent Uighurs at a time when they need it most. Uighurs across China are already reporting intensified harassment, regardless of whether they had anything to do with [the] crash.”

Prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at Beijing’s Minzu University, argued that “Many Han Chinese resort to extreme action and harm innocent people as well to express their frustration to society. From the evidence that has been released about this family in the car, they were more like self-immolators who felt they had been wronged and wanted to release their anger." Both Tibetans and Chinese have made headlines for committing acts of self-immolation. Although their specific circumstances differ, both have used these individual acts of violence to protest various Chinese government policies. Similarly, in her own thoughtful piece on the recent attacks, Council on Foreign Relations expert Elizabeth Economy cited an op-ed by judge Shu Rui, which argued that the disabled man who bombed the Beijing International Airport last July demonstrated the need to “take seriously everyone’s discontent” and make certain that “justice and fairness” are an inherent part of the Chinese legal system. Those who feel weak and victimized may feel compelled to take extreme and desperate measures to make their voices heard.

Economy states that while “Beijing’s inability or unwillingness to address adequately the well-founded political and economic grievances of Uighurs does not minimize the actual terror threat that China might face from Uighur separatists.... However, such attacks have been few and far between. The more pressing challenge for Beijing is to weave a social contract with an increasingly disenfranchised Chinese people—Uighurs among them—that respects and protects their interests and rights.”

The Chinese government reacted harshly to such arguments. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei stated that “Some people and forces link the terrorist activities by a handful of terrorist extremists against innocent civilians and tourists with ethnic and religious issues and even use this as an excuse to attack China's policies on ethnic groups and religions.” He continued to assert that such individuals were acting in “connivance” with terrorists. “Relevant terrorist activity is a severe crime against humanity, society and civilization and should be condemned by anyone with conscience.” The media, he added, “should tell right from wrong on this issue and cover it with an objective and impartial attitude rather than the other way around.” One could subsequently ask, what does “objective and partial” coverage actually mean to the Chinese government, and how does it hope to achieve this goal if it refuses to handle these events in a judicious and transparent manner?

Of equal concern is the fear that the attack is leading to acts of discrimination and racial profiling, as well as crackdowns, which can further exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions. Zheng Liang, a lecturer at the Xinjiang University College of Journalism and Communication,
cautioned against using the incident to treat all Uighurs with suspicion:="#.uooz0meo7vi">

“The media needs to realize that they are assuming social responsibilities such as ensuring ethnic equality, unity and sociocultural variety. The majority of Uighur are also victims of this terrorist attack. Terrorists don't belong to any ethnic group, or represent any particular religion. The mainstream media should take on the responsibility of separating this incident from the Uighur and Islam. They need to portray the image of Xinjiang and Uighur in a comprehensive manner, and try their best to avoid secondary damage to the Uighur people, especially the ones who live outside of the far west.”