Last week a jeep exploded in Tiananmen Square after crashing into the wall of the Forbidden City. Five people were killed, including the three passengers, and more than forty injured. The Beijing police said it was a suicide attack, and that the passengers were all ethnically Uighur. The five people they arrested the next day were all Uighur too.
The suspects’ ethnicity was enough to provoke speculation, both in China and abroad, that the incident might be linked to the sporadic violence in Xinjiang. Since 9/11 the Chinese government has maintained that it is being targeted by Islamic terrorists with links to al-Qaida, who want to establish an Islamic republic in Xinjiang. It wasn’t a great surprise when the police claimed to have found knives and a ‘jihadist flag’ in the jeep (though how this escaped the flames remains a mystery). The government is now blaming the attack on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group China has previously blamed for bombings and an attempted hijacking.
Yet there’s little evidence that the violence in Xinjiang has been perpetrated by any cohesive organisation. It’s also doubtful that the ETIM, to the degree it even exists, has the capability to carry out such attacks – only China’s allies in the region (especially Pakistan) and a number of hawkish US websites seem to think otherwise. Even the US government has removed the ETIM from its list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations.
The Chinese government insists that its response to the violence is ethnically blind. But there is a clear double standard. When a Han Chinese man in a wheelchair tried to blow himself up at Beijing airport in July, it wasn’t described as terrorism; nor were the recent explosions outside the Communist Party headquarters in Taiyuan. There is growing official acknowledgment that some forms of social unrest can be traced to the misapplication of government policy (such as land confiscations and house demolitions). Beijing has imposed religious restrictions and promoted economic inequalities in Xinjiang. But Uighur protests are branded terrorism, and the label is used to justify mass arrests and increased surveillance throughout the province.