China Government: A Deadly Fireball in Tiananmen Is No Big Deal

It's just terror attack, says Beijing, pretend it never happened

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Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

Armed police stand guard at Tiananamen Square in Beijing on Oct. 31, 2013

Downplay the story. That’s the Central Propaganda Department’s directive for Chinese journalists covering Monday’s deadly attack in the heart of Beijing. In censorship instructions that were leaked online, authorities make clear that there is no room for debate about the fiery auto wreck that killed 5 and injured 40. “Downplay the story; do not speculate on it; do not exaggerate it; do not put the story on the front page or website homepage,” they said, according to a translation by China Digital Times.

Days later, it feels like the whole city got that memo. Security officials were silent for more than 48 hours before declaring that the incident — in which an SUV plowed through crowds in Tiananmen Square before bursting in flames — was a ‘terrorist’ attack orchestrated by religious extremists from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Since then, they’ve said little else, and have not replied to interview requests. Eyewitness accounts keep disappearing from the web. An ethnic Uighur expert declined to comment, citing instructions from her superiors.

The chill seems to have reached many Uighurs living in Beijing.  With ongoing tension between the central government and Xinjiang’s Turkic-speaking Muslim population, Uighur migrants are often viewed with suspicion in Han China. They have trouble finding jobs and renting homes. Many report being stopped and questioned by police, or having security officials come by their houses at night. The worry is that the attack will deepen distrust on both sides, fueling the community’s marginalization.

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

That may already be happening. On Thursday, Uighur shopkeepers at Beijing’s Panjiayuan market were too frightened to talk to TIME. When they did, they replied using nearly identical language, as if reading from a script:

“Are you from Xinjiang,” we’d ask.

“Yes, I am,” they’d reply in Chinese.

“Have you had any trouble since the incident on Monday?”

“I don’t speak Chinese.”

“We are speaking in Chinese.”

“I don’t know anything about this situation.”

A half-dozen men said nearly the same thing, give or take a word. One vendor, who said he was from Kashgar, agreed to chat, but said he could not give his name. We chatted for a few minutes about what life was like for Uighurs in Beijing. He said he migrated to the capital because it “had law” and he could live with relative freedom. Police came to his house once or twice a month, but otherwise, life was good. When Monday’s attack was raised, he stood, smiled, and said he didn’t know anything about the situation.

The information lockdown is tighter in Xinjiang itself. A reporter for the Wall Street Journal who traveled to Lukqun, the hometown of one of the alleged perpetrators, wrote that police armed with assault rifles are patrolling the streets and manning regular checkpoints on the dusty roads.  Reporters from Japan’s Asahi Shimbun were stopped at checkpoints outside the township and turned away.

The lack of transparency raises questions about China’s handling of whole affair. Many wonder about the accuracy of state media reports, the processing of the evidence, and the chances of a fair trial for those who’ve been detained. “I have the information that everyone else has, which is what is in the Chinese media,” said Henryk Szadziewsky, of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, in a phone interview.  “We can’t be entirely sure that this information is entirely trustworthy.”

He called for an independent investigation, but that won’t happen. The case is too sensitive, especially heading into this month’s meeting of top party leaders.  A crash in Tiananmen Square, just meters from the south gate to the Forbidden City, under a portrait of Chairman Mao, is a nightmare for them. This is the symbolic heart of the city, an icon of Chinese Communist Power, but also of resistance to their rule. As eyewitness accounts of the chaotic scene are ripped from the web, a new, more controlled, narrative will be crafted — one that focuses on the government’s swift and competent response.

“Rampant as the terrorist forces are, they have limited capabilities,” read an editorial in the state-backed Global Times. “China’s overall security and order won’t be shaken by terrorist forces.”

In other words: nothing to see here folks, move along.

— With reporting from Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

MORE: Photos Disappear After Car Strikes Crowd at Tiananmen Square, Killing 5