Beijing police today confirmed what many had started to suspect: what happened in Tiananmen Square on Monday was no accident. In a statement posted online Wednesday, Beijing police said they have five suspects in custody for the fiery wreck that killed five and injured 38 in central Beijing. For the first time, officials used the word terror to describe what happened, calling it “a carefully orchestrated, organized and premeditated terrorist attack.”
On Monday at 12 p.m. a light-colored SUV barreled through a crowd of pedestrians at the north end of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and exploded into flames just feet from the portrait of Chairman Mao. The police statement identifies the driver of the vehicle as Usmen Hasan and says his wife and mother were with him. “Gas, knives, iron rods” and “religious extremist banners” were found at the scene. Five additional suspects were later arrested “with the help of Xinjiang police,” the police said, and one has since confessed.
If what happened was, as China claims, a deliberate act of violence in the heart of the capital, it does not bode well for ethnic relations here. The People’s Republic of China officially recognizes 55 minority groups, including about 10 million Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group based in the Silk Road cities of the country’s vast northwest. Most live in what is now called the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region — a misnomer, critics say, since the area is effectively under Beijing’s thumb.
(MORE: A Brief History of the Uighurs)
Calls for greater autonomy are a perennial source of conflict between Xinjiang’s Uighurs and the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Some Uighurs resent the influx of Han Chinese migrants to the land they call East Turkestan, feel left out of the region’s economic boom, and complain that their language, religion and culture are threatened by Beijing. China’s government counters that it has brought prosperity to the region and regularly warns of a rising tide of religious extremism. Chinese police recently arrested more than 100 people for spreading “jihadist sentiment” online. Twenty-two Uighurs were held by the U.S. at Guantánamo Bay.
Over the past few years, the region has convulsed with violence. In 2009, nearly 200 people, both Han and Uighur, were killed in the regional capital, Urumqi. In April, 21 died in another grisly round of attacks. Most recently, in June, 27 died in Xinjiang’s Shanshan county, which, according to a police memo released Monday, is home to one of the suspects. Anger runs deep on both sides.
Of course, with the driver and his family dead, we may never know what transpired in the vehicle as it sped toward the square. China has thus far maintained a tight grip on the story, staying silent for three full days and pulling eyewitness accounts from the Web. We still know little about the perpetrators, and even less about the victims. With the censors in full swing and a legal system that operates at the behest of the ruling party, it may take weeks, or years, before the facts of the case are known.
Meanwhile, the Uighur community is bracing for a backlash. In a statement released Wednesday, World Uyghur Congress president Rebiya Kadeer, an exile China holds in contempt similar to the Tibetan Dalai Lama, expressed her sorrow for the victims and also her fear that the purported acts of a few could result in a regionwide crackdown. “Today, I fear for the future of East Turkestan and the Uyghur people more than I ever have,” she said.
— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing