The rise of terrorism in ChinaWhen the Chinese blogosphere lit up with reports of a car ploughing into pedestrians in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Oct. 28, international media giants like CNN, Reuters and the BBC were not really sure what to make of the information. Limited facts provided by the Chinese government, combined with deliberate state attempts to erase any mention of the incident on the internet and local news media, initially painted a picture of a mere car accident gone terribly wrong in China’s most highly guarded area.
But the picture quickly morphed into a terrorist plot when eyewitnesses stepped forward and Chinese state media began cautiously reporting on the incident late Monday night. Yet when asked whether the Chinese government believed the incident was a terrorist attack, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying declined to comment. Obviously the Chinese government was not sure itself what just had happened at the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
It did not take long for Beijing’s security services to conclude that domestic terrorism had taken a stab at the heart of Chinese power. Ten hours after the incident occurred, police forces detained five Uighurs in Beijing and seized Islamist material, while Xinhua News released the names of the three people driving the car that identified them as ethnic Uighurs. All in all, five people have died in the incident and 38 others have been injured, in what history will term Beijing’s first major suicide attack.
Although terrorism is not foreign to the middle kingdom, the quality and determination of Uighur separatists and Muslim extremists to stage a plot more than 1,000 miles away from Xinjiang, has caught Chinese authorities and counterterrorism experts off guard. What first seemed like a car accident but has been exposed as a crude terrorist attack was indeed “carefully planned, organized and plotted” against all the stacked odds. The long-held belief that Beijing’s harsh rule and stringent controls in Xinjiang would make it impossible for Uighurs to organize such an attack has been subsequently shattered.
For the Chinese public, the image of a burning car in front of Chairman Mao’s giant picture at Tiananmen Square was a wake-up call, equal in effect to the twin towers falling in New York on Sept. 11. Like back in the United States in 2001, suspicion, anger and tensions are currently on the rise in China between the majority Han Chinese and the Muslim minority.
As security forces in Xinjiang have been put on high alert since Monday night, the danger of ethnic clashes in the autonomous province, as witnessed almost every year since 2007, is steadily growing.
It is indeed an open secret that China’s terrorism problem is domestically engineered and stems from the economic disenfranchisement and governmental discrimination of the approximately 9 million Uighurs living within its borders.
More securitization and paramilitary crackdowns will certainly suppress any terrorist plot in the near future, but it will not eliminate the underlying threat.
Breeding further hatred is not the answer to China’s problem in Xinjiang.
While predominately human rights advocates have spoken out for years on end for a policy change in the two autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, Beijing has been staunchly following a hard power approach in both of its problem provinces. But the grip of the Communist Party is visibly cracking with every Uighur riot, self-immolating Tibetan monk or plotted terrorist attack.
The forces in Zhongnanhai need to come up with a political solution to the Republic’s unresolved ethnic challenges. But if China continues to ignore the problem as happened in all the years before, it will merely fertilize the ground for the seeds of future terrorist attacks.
* Stefan Soesanto Non-resident James A. Kelly Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS