Beijing Looks for Uighur Link After Tiananmen Fireball

But authorities have yet to comment on yesterday's "major incident" in which five died and dozens were injured

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Updated: Oct. 29, 2013, 00:40 E.T., more suspects sought: Chinese Police Seek Eight Following Tiananmen Attack

Accident? What accident? That pretty much sums up Beijing’s account of yesterday’s crash in Tiananmen Square. More than 24 hours after a vehicle plowed into a crowd and burst into flames — killing five and injuring 38 — local authorities have yet to comment publicly on the case and censors seem to be working overtime to scrub photographs from the Web. But a memo sent by the police to hotels in the Chinese capital late Monday may hold some preliminary clues.

Hours after the wreck, Beijing police sent a notice to local hotels informing them that there was a “major incident” in the capital and urging them to look out for “suspicious guests.” The document lists the names, home districts and I.D. numbers of two men from China’s far-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, as well as four Xinjiang license plates. “In order to prevent the suspects and vehicles from committing more crimes, we require all hotels to report guests who have registered since Oct. 1 and the cars they have driven,” it says.

If the information circulated by the police is correct — and, to be clear, that’s a very big if — yesterday’s incident in Tiananmen might be related to ongoing unrest in Xinjiang.

(MORE: Beijing’s Tiananmen Square: Centuries of Chinese History and Protest)

China officially recognizes 55 minority groups, including the Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslims from the country’s vast northwest. Many ethnic Uighurs resent the influx of Han Chinese migrants to their homeland, feel left out of the region’s economic boom, and complain that their language, religion and culture are threatened by Beijing. The ruling Chinese Communist Party counters that it has brought prosperity to the region and often warns of increasing religious extremism. Over the past few months, police have arrested 139 people for allegedly spreading “jihadist sentiment” online.

There have been several spasms of violence in Xinjiang. In 2009, about 200 people, both Han and Uighur, were killed in the regional capital, Urumqi. Last April, 21 people died in another grisly outbreak. Most recently, in June, riots claimed 27 lives in Shanshan county, which, according to the police memo, is home to one of the Tiananmen suspects.

(MORE: A Brief History of the Uighurs)

Whether that amounts to coincidence, or context, we don’t yet know. The government has thus far managed to keep a firm hold on the story, and there have been few public mentions of the case. The police have confirmed the death toll, as well as the fact that foreigners — including Filipinos and at least one Japanese man — were among those hit. But for the most part, state media has ignored or downplayed the story.

Tiananmen Square also seems to have been washed clean and is, once again, thronging with tourists. Save for a few police trucks, it’s as if the incident never happened. But we have to wonder how long the silence can last. As quickly as the censors scrub eyewitness accounts, Chinese netizens are reposting them elsewhere, spreading photographs and videos that hint at the terror that took place. The images are chaotic and frightening, and they seem to confirm what most here already suspect: that this was no accident after all.

— With reporting from Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

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