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The investigation into the fiery crash of a sport utility vehicle in Tiananmen Square Monday – possibly a suicide attack carried out by ethnic Uighurs – has cast renewed attention on China’s fraught relationship with one of its largest minority populations.
Chinese officials have not publicly commented on whether the incident, which killed the vehicle’s three occupants and two tourists, was an accident or an attack.
But anonymous senior sources told Reuters that the event is suspected of being a suicide attack, and hotel managers in at least two Beijing hotels told foreign journalists that the Beijing police ordered hotel staff to provide information on two “suspicious guests” who are Uighurs.
“If the incident is confirmed to have been an attack by Uighur separatists, it would be their most audacious strike yet, hitting the political heart of China's capital. It would likely trigger a security clampdown in usually tense Xinjiang as well as a tightening of preventative measures around potential targets across the country,” The Wall Street Journal reports.
Although Han Chinese make up more than 90 percent of the population, China is home to more than 40 ethnic minorities, including Uighers, who maintain a separate language, religion, and culture from the ethnic Han. The Chinese government accuses the Uighers, who are mostly concentrated in the western Xinjiang province, of using terrorism to bolster a separatist movement.
Monday’s security breach, in which the SUV plowed through a crowd of tourists for about 400 yards before crashing into the Tiananmen gate, took place while top government leaders, including President Xie Jingping were meeting at the Great Hall of the People about 200 yards away.
While “there is no indication that the physical safety of the leaders, who were attending meetings inside the Great Hall of the People, was jeopardized,” the Los Angeles Times reports, “the apparent suicide attack so close to the epicenter of power rattled the Chinese government and has raised doubts about the effectiveness of its often-stifling security apparatus.”
Tensions between the central government and Uighurs are not new, but if the event was meant as a suicide attack – and one aimed at the most politically sensitive spot in China – it would represent new development, Barry Sautman, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told Reuters.
"Certainly there have been a lot of bombings carried out by Uighur groups, but none of them as far as I know have involved suicide," he said.
There were violent Uighur riots in June and April of this year, with more than 20 people killed in each. The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Ford, writing from Beijing, explains how the dispute simmers on both sides:
“Xinjiang, once a predominantly Muslim province in China’s far west, has seen massive settlement by ethnic Han immigrants in recent decades. Local people complain that their culture and language are being eroded and that Han now outnumber original inhabitants, who are ethnic Uighurs, with linguistic and cultural ties to central Asian peoples.”
China has often accused a shadowy group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement of being behind violence in Xinjiang, but foreign observers are dubious, with some saying that Beijing deliberately exaggerates the terrorist threat in order to justify the iron grip it keeps on Xinjiang.
The US State Department put the group on its terrorist watch list in 2002, but has since removed it amid doubts about whether the group is a real organization.
Some of the same problems were brewing more than a decade ago. The Monitor's Robert Marquand reported in 2003:
An ambitious "Go West" campaign is bringing new populations and infrastructure to one of China's least developed regions. The change is a sharp challenge to the identity – and, some say, the viability – of a desert Central Asian people that were a majority in Xinjiang until the late 1990s.
The eight million Uighurs of Turkic Muslim origin are facing new policies – such as requiring their children to learn Chinese in primary schools – and large funding cuts in majority Uighur colleges. They are confronting as well the effects of a five-year "strike hard" campaign to wipe out acts of "separatism" through round-ups, arrests, and executions. More executions take place in Xinjiang, an estimated one or two a day, than in any other part of China, according to Human Rights Watch. Since Sept. 11, moreover, the government has tried to conflate, as one expert puts it, all local separatist movements and Uighur identity struggles as part of an "Islamic terrorist" movement.”