On 28 October 2013, a sport-utility vehicle crashed into crowds of pedestrians in Tiananmen Square, killing five and injuring 38. According to Chinese police officials, the “carefully planned, organised, and premeditated” attack was an act of terrorism targeting the government of the People’s Republic of China. The vehicle’s registration and the suspects’ names have lead authorities to blame the attack on members of the Uighur population, a minority ethnic group residing dominantly in the northwest territory of Xinjiang.
The Uighur population has since expressed frustration with the government’s tight grip over most aspects of their society. In a country without an official religion, the Turkic Muslim Uighurs expect a greater deal of tolerance to practice their faith. Last summer, the PRC put restrictions on the observance of Ramadan in Xinjiang by forbidding Communist Party cadres, civil officials, and students to participate in Ramadan religious activities. The PRC has also encouraged Han Chinese to move into Xinjiang in a “Go West” campaign that has succeeded in significantly reducing Uighur population proportions. As a result, many Uighurs fear a dilution of traditional culture, which largely contributes to dissent within the Xinjiang region.
The Chinese government claims that its domineering role within Xinjiang is necessary to quell unrest within a region which has displayed dissent against the central government in the past. Beginning in the 1990s, Uighur separatist groups launched frequent attacks on the Chinese government, the most famous of which was the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Not only has the PRC acknowledged this organization as a terrorist group, but it has also identified links between ETIM and al-Qaeda. In the months leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese government announced that it had uncovered a plot in which Uighur separatists planned suicide bomb attacks. Shortly before the Games commenced, two men killed sixteen policemen when they attacked a military police unit in Xinjiang.
Since September 11, the Chinese government has linked its actions against the Uighur rebels to Bush’s War on Terror. The government justifies its strict monitoring of religious activity within Xinjiang as a security priority. According to Chinese officials, the government’s firm control over the “autonomous” region is a result of its attempts to combat separatist and terrorist activity.
Regardless of whether or not Uighur separatist groups are indeed terrorist organizations, as long as the Chinese government continues to portray dissent within the Xinjiang region as an existential threat, the Uighur population will have to face the consequences. In response to the most recent attacks in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government is likely to come down hard against the ethnic minority group by further propelling its “Go West” campaign and strengthening its control over the region’s politics, religion, and culture.
So far, Beijing residents have reported increased numbers of police forces in Uighur areas of the city since the incident occurred. Additionally, many Uighur people have expressed a fear of dealing the repercussions that the Chinese government will inevitably impose upon them.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons