On the eve of the July 5th event, Chinese media reported an alleged hijacking attempt on a Tianjian airplane from Khotan to Urumuqi on June 29th (http://news.sohu.com/20120629/n346897233.shtml).
According to Chinese media, after a collective fighting between 6 Uyghurs and passengers and 20 special force operatives who were heading to Urumuqi for training, the airplane safely returned to Khotan airport. The suspects were arrested.
Immediately after the incident on the same day, the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China lauded the airplane as an “Anti-Hijacking Hero Airplane” and the passengers for their brave actions.
The Xinjiang public security also declared this foiled attempt as a terrorist act. In order to justify this explanation, the Xinjiang public security authority also revealed the weapons used by the suspects. According to official statement, the weapons appear to be matches, lighters, and 6 pieces of suspected bombing devices, in addition to cane. (http://news.qq.com/a/20120629/001886.htm). China’s foreign ministry on July 2 re-iterated the incident as terrorist attack
The discovery of these “weapons” on board even raised the question of how the suspects could bring them to the airport. The accusation even doubts the loyalty of the Uyghur security police at Khotan airport, as raised by some blogs and web sites.
The development of the aftermath of the incident was dramatic. According to early Chinese reports, (1) the 20 special force operatives who fought with the suspects were later found to be only 6 routine Khotan police. Among them at least 4 are Uyghur. (2) Two suspected attempted to commit suicide by biting their tongues. (3) It was reported later that two other suspects died. It seems that the suspects will never have a chance to speak out the truth as “suicide” and deaths continue to rise.
The quick definition of the incident as terrorist attack, coupled with the subsequent praise for the passengers of the airplane, raised questions abroad regarding the nature of the incident and handling of the incident. The World Uyghur Congress and American Uyghur association immediately refuted the Chinese statements and expressed their caution and concern. They revealed that the incident was actually an ethnic fighting between Uyghur and Han passengers caused by the seating arrangements.
Interestingly and ironically, two days after the hijacking incident, it is reported that 5 Han women fought on an airplane from Kunning to Shenyang and they were driven out of the airplane (5名女乘客高空打群架被赶下飞机). This differentiated treatment of collective violence on airplane highlights the sensitivity of Uyghur-Han conflict in Xinjiang, especially on airplane, which can be easily translated as terrorist act.
Although the details and truth of the incident are hard to discern, especially along with the suicide and deaths of the suspects, it is interesting to observe the way the story has been told in China. Here are some personal experiences and observations regarding airport security in Khotan.
1.It should be highlighted that the Khotan airport is a joint military and civilian airport, and the security check is extremely tight. There are no Uyghur personals serving at the security check, and even the neighboring waiting-room café is staffed by Han personnel.
2.With regard to how matches and lighters were brought to the airplane, some Chinese web sites and blogs have pointed to the Uyghur traitors who may assist the suspects to bring the forbidden items. According to my personal experiences, even a travel-size tooth paste is prohibited to bring while it is allowed in Urumuqi airport.
To debate on the nature of this incident as a terrorist act or ethnic conflict seems to return to the old paradigm that Chinese officials tend to define as terrorist and Uyghur organizations as ethnic fighting.
It is time to ask who benefit from the incident/terrorist act, terrorist groups, if they even exist in Xinjiang, would definitely benefit. However, the event occurs at a special timing and context that the 3rd anniversary of the July 5th event is approaching and that the hardliner bloc headed by Wang Lequan is transitioning to the reform-minded Zhang Zhunxian. The timeliness of the incident proves the correctness of Wang Lequan’s hard line policy towards the Uyghurs and provides the legitimacy for Wang promoted security officials to remain in the office.