Why China isn't capitalizing on the Tiananmen Square attack

Most suspects in the Tiananmen Square attack are Uighurs – an ethnic minority in tension with the Chinese state – but the government has not paraded that fact. 

Alexander F. Yuan/AP
A partially damaged stone bridge is surrounded by potted plants in front of Tiananmen Gate, where, on Monday, a sport utility vehicle crashed and caught fire, in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013.

If a car plowed through a crowd of tourists outside the White House before exploding into flames, killing several people and injuring dozens, TV crews would be swarming the site within minutes, the web would be alive with comment, and the incident would be front page news in the next day’s papers.

That’s not the way things work in China.

When a car crashed on Tiananmen Square on Monday and burst into flames after careering nearly 500 yards along a sidewalk, killing five and injuring 38, the only reporters rushing to the scene were foreigners. Police promptly detained them and deleted the video and photos they had shot.

There was no mention of the incident on prime-time Chinese TV news; the next day’s papers ran short stories calling it a traffic accident; and censors busied themselves trying to limit online discussion of the event by deleting social media posts.

Those posts were already suggesting that the crash was deliberate. But the idea that a terrorist had managed to stage an attack right under the nose of Mao Zedong, whose portrait hangs over the entrance to the Forbidden City – the symbolic heart of the Chinese state – was clearly too embarrassing to admit.

Only two days later did the state run news agency Xinhua release a statement by the police calling what had been a simple traffic accident a “carefully planned, organized and premeditated” terrorist attack by Muslim jihadis. They published a list of suspects’ names, all of which seemed to belong to ethnic Uighurs from the far western Muslim province of Xinjiang.

That information still did not make it onto the nationally televised evening news yesterday. Newspapers – subject to strict censorship even when they are not owned by the government – had little to say on Thursday morning. And all you could find on social media were bland copies of official slogans, such as “terrorists are few…all ethnic groups get along well.”

The reason why could be found in a directive from the ruling Communist party’s Central Propaganda Department, which a journalist leaked to the China Digital Times website.

“The media must report the story in strict accordance with Xinhua News Agency wire copy,” the order read. “Downplay the story; do not speculate on it; do not put the story on the front page or a website’s homepage; do not use images.”

This seemed odd. The Chinese government has gone to great lengths to try to persuade the world that its opponents in Xinjiang, where people complain of religious and cultural repression, are all “terrorists.” Most independent outside observers have scoffed at such claims.

Here, Beijing appeared to have persuasive evidence of a terrorist attack on civilians carried out by Uighurs. And the authorities behaved almost as if they wanted to hush it up.

That, explains Gong Wenxiang, a veteran journalism professor at Peking University, is because even the prospects of making political capital from the attack are trumped by the highest values in the ruling Communist party’s worldview: stability and harmony.

In less than two weeks, the country’s top leadership will gather for a key meeting that might unleash dramatic, and controversial economic reforms. In the run-up to that conclave, says Mr. Gong, “you don’t want to send any signal of instability; the central government does not want to appear not in full control of the situation.”

At the same time, he adds, the government is keen to project the image of a unified country where all 56 ethnic minorities live in peace with the dominant Han – which any Tibetan or Uighur will tell you is hardly the case.

Though no group has claimed responsibility for Monday’s crash, officials are suggesting that the suicide driver was a pro-independence Uighur separatist.

“Separatism is the most horrible crime in the government’s eyes,” says Gong. “And now it appears at the most sensitive time in the most sensitive place. Of course they want to hold the news back as much as possible.”

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