Festering discontent with China’s governance of Xinjiang is on the rise and Beijing is intent on clamping down, analysts say, in a vicious cycle that will only spin faster after a fatal attack in Tiananmen Square.
Authorities say Usmen Hasan and his wife and mother were carrying jihadist banners and machetes in the vehicle that they crashed into crowds outside the Forbidden City on Monday, before setting it alight and dying in the blaze.
Chinese Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu (孟建柱) said the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) were “behind-the-scenes supporters” of the incident.
However, experts play down ETIM’s capabilities and doubt that international militant Islam was a significant factor, given the lack of sophistication in the action — which killed two tourists — and the absence of any claim of responsibility.
“What would one make of the three people in the van at Tiananmen on Monday?” asked Barry Sautman, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
“Are they a group? Well, they’re three related people in a family. Do they have any attachment to any larger organization? It’s not entirely clear,” he said.
Authorities often tout the fact that China’s booming growth and affirmative action policies have lifted many Uighurs out of poverty. However, Uighurs complain of marginalization, discrimination, and religious and cultural repression.
Tensions have led to eruptions of violence over the past five years, with Beijing casting the unrest as the work of Islamic “terrorists” or “ethnic separatist forces.”
Gardner Bovingdon, a professor of Central Asian studies at Indiana University, said that Beijing moved swiftly to control the narrative of events after the Tiananmen attack.
He likened the media scrubbing to an Internet and cellphone blackout in the far-western region following huge inter-ethnic riots in summer 2009, in which more than 200 people were killed.
“It is telling that the police so quickly cordoned off the area and scrubbed the Web of pictures and blog posts the day of the crash,” he said. “Beijing wants to squelch information and control the story that ultimately emerges, to avoid a deeper look into why Xinjiang has been unstable for so long.”
Further crackdowns will probably only backfire, experts said, but predicted that they would be imposed nonetheless.
“History tells us that new administrations in Beijing, as [Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s (習近平) is, tend to be keen to demonstrate their strength early on in their tenure in order to solidify their grip on power,” said Nicholas Dynon, a researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney.
“With the current government, we have seen this being played out not just in Xinjiang, but across the board: from internet anti-rumor campaigns to anti-waste and thrift drives within the party itself,” he said.