Skip to main content

Tiananmen crash: Terrorism or cry of desperation?

By Sean R. Roberts, special to CNN
October 31, 2013 -- Updated 0629 GMT (1429 HKT)
An anti-terrorism force holds exercises in Hami, in northwest China's Xinjiang region in July.
An anti-terrorism force holds exercises in Hami, in northwest China's Xinjiang region in July.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chinese government has created a virtual police state within Xinjiang
  • Crude instruments used in attack suggest not work of well-organized group
  • No evidence Uyghurs involved substantively in a global Muslim militant movement.
  • Claims of a Uyghur terrorist threat maybe becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Editor's note: Sean R. Roberts is an associate professor and director of international development studies at George Washington University. He has done substantial fieldwork in China's Xinjiang region and is presently writing a book on the Uyghurs of Kazakhstan.

(CNN) -- The events on Beijing's Tiananmen Square that resulted in the death of five people and the injury of dozens more were tragic, but are they representative of a serious terrorist threat to the Chinese state as is now being suggested by official sources?

According to Chinese security organs, this act of driving a jeep into a crowd of people and setting it on fire was a "carefully planned, organized, and premeditated" terrorist attack carried out by a group of Uyghur Islamic extremists from Xinjiang Province.

READ: Beijing car crash 'a terrorist attack'

Sean R. Roberts researches the impact of Chinese state-driven development in Central Asia and Xinjiang
Sean R. Roberts researches the impact of Chinese state-driven development in Central Asia and Xinjiang

Unfortunately, given the lack of transparency historically in the Chinese state's conviction of Uyghurs on charges of political violence, we may never know whether this characterization of Monday's events is accurate.

What we do know is that Chinese security organs claim that the attackers in the truck, all of whom died, were a Uyghur man, his wife, and his mother. Additionally, Chinese state sources claim to have arrested an additional five suspects in connection with the alleged plot.

Were these alleged attackers members of a cell belonging to a large transnational Jihadist network like Al-Qaeda? Are they representatives of a well-organized militant movement like Al-Shabaab, which recently led an armed hostage-taking operation at a mall in Kenya?

Looking at the crude instruments allegedly used by these people -- gasoline, knives, iron rods, and an SUV, it is difficult to argue that this was the work of any highly organized and well-armed militant group or terrorist network.

There were no sophisticated explosives used in the attacks, and the alleged attackers did not even possess guns. Furthermore, although Uyghurs are Muslims, there is no evidence that they have ever been involved substantively in a global Muslim militant movement.

China calls Beijing attack terrorism
Tensions in western China
Sandstorm blurs Chinese city's skyline

READ: Who are the Uyghurs?

So, how do we understand this act of violence if it was indeed carried out by a family of Uyghurs?

The obvious answer is to look at what is happening in the Xinjiang itself where such violent acts have been occurring with increasing frequency ever since the ethnic violence between Uyghurs and Han Chinese that spread throughout the regional capitol of Urumqi during the summer of 2009.

Life for Uyghurs inside Xinjiang is not like that of most people in the People's Republic of China (PRC).

For the last decade, the Chinese government has created a virtual police state within Xinjiang, employing enhanced surveillance of Uyghur citizens, actively repressing Uyghurs' political voices, and greatly curtailing Uyghur religious practices.

It has also vastly reduced Uyghurs' access to education in their own language and has limited Uyghur language publications of original reading materials.

Officially, the Chinese state explains most of these measures as part of its anti-terrorism measures to protect national security.

These measures also regularly include arresting large numbers of Uyghurs on charges of engaging in "illegal religious activity" or of having ties to terrorist organizations.

In fact, during this month alone, security organs in Xinjiang were involved in the fatal shooting of suspected Uyghur militants on several separate occasions and arrested at least one hundred more they suspected of trying to flee the country.

Although the government characterizes its ongoing and expansive confrontation with Uyghurs in Xinjiang as anti-terrorism, it is equally related to the PRC's larger plans for Xinjiang.

READ: Xinjiang calm on anniversary of deadly riots?

The region is of critical strategic importance to the state as it is China's primary gateway to the west, both in accessing western markets for Chinese goods and in securing natural resources, such as oil, gas, and uranium from Central Asia and locations further west and south.

In this context, the PRC is presently funding enormous development projects in Xinjiang that are also bringing a large influx of Han Chinese migrants and are uprooting Uyghur communities and displacing them from traditional lands.

The state may not care to rid Xinjiang of Uyghurs, but it would like the Uyghurs living there to willingly yield their perceived homeland to a Han-dominant state culture. As a result, the future of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region appears destined to be neither Uyghur nor autonomous.

With these events unfolding in the region that Uyghurs view as their historical homeland, one feels compelled to question whether Monday's alleged attack was a well-prepared terrorist act or a hastily assembled cry of desperation from a people on the extreme margins of the Chinese state's monstrous development machine.

However, given that this is allegedly the first instance that Uyghurs have carried out such desperate acts outside Xinjiang, and in this case in the very symbolic seat of central power, we may also be witnessing a sharp escalation in the Chinese state's confrontation with the Uyghurs.

In the midst of this escalation, it is also possible that the PRC's long-maintained, but largely unsubstantiated, claims of a Uyghur terrorist threat are perhaps becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sean R. Roberts

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0153 GMT (0953 HKT)
China is building an island in the South China Sea that could accommodate an airstrip, according to IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1057 GMT (1857 HKT)
North Korean refugees face a daunting journey to reach asylum in South Korea, with gangs of smugglers the only option.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 2319 GMT (0719 HKT)
China and "probably one or two other" countries have the capacity to shut down the nation's power grid and other critical infrastructure.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1039 GMT (1839 HKT)
It'd be hard to find another country that has spent as much, and as furiously, as China on giving its next generation a head start.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0532 GMT (1332 HKT)
In 1985, Meng Weina set up China's first private special needs school in the southern city of Guangzhou.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
Despite China's inexorable economic rise, the U.S. is still an indispensable ally, especially in Asia. No one knows this more than the Asian giant's leaders, writes Kerry Brown.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 0338 GMT (1138 HKT)
For the United States and China to announce a plan reducing carbon emissions by almost a third by the year 2030 is a watershed moment for climate politics on so many fronts.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 2026 GMT (0426 HKT)
China shows off its new stealth fighter jet, but did it steal the design from an American company? Brian Todd reports.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0101 GMT (0901 HKT)
Airshow China in Zhuhai provides a rare glimpse of China's military and commercial aviation hardware.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
A new exchange initiative aims to bridge relations between the two countries .
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0551 GMT (1351 HKT)
Xi and Abe's brief summit featured all the enthusiasm of two unhappy schoolboys forced to make up after a schoolyard dust-up.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
Maybe you've decided to show your partner love with a new iPhone. But how about 99 of them?
November 3, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
Can China's Muslim minority fit in? One school is at the heart of an ambitious experiment to assimilate China's Uyghurs.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of thousands of Americans learning Chinese.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 0500 GMT (1300 HKT)
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says he needs to maintain good economic ties with China while trying to keep Beijing's push for reunification at bay.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 0528 GMT (1328 HKT)
Chinese drone-maker DJI wants to make aerial photography drones mainstream despite concerns about privacy.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 0518 GMT (1318 HKT)
A top retired general confesses to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in war on corruption.
ADVERTISEMENT