by HAIYUN MA for ISLAMiCommentary on November 1, 2013:
Two particular Uyghur visits to Communist China’s capital, Beijing, might be said to define the trajectory of the relationship between China’s Han rulers and the ruled Ugyhur people of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
As legend has it, in 1956 75-year old Uncle Qurban ventured to Beijing on the back of a donkey to meet Chairman Mao and was indeed officially received by him. This event positively portrayed the friendly and harmonious relationship between the new communist regime and the (mostly Muslim) Uyghur people of Xinjiang (“New Territory”). The event was even made into an award-wining movie during China’s movie festival in 2003.
The original photo shows Qurban and Chairman Mao shaking hands. [Xinjiang officials recently distorted this photo (at right) by adding sentences like: “unity and stability make happiness,” “separatism and unrest make disaster,” “maintain ethnic unity,” “treasure happy life.”]
Five decades later, another shocking visit to Beijing was made by Uyghurs. But this time was no friendly visit.
On October 28, a family of three Uyghurs reportedly drove a jeep into a bridge (Golden-water Bridge), and exploded it under Mao’s watchful eyes at the gate of the Forbidden City – killing them all. According to police, as reported by State-run Xinhua news agency, two bystanders including a tourist from the Philippines and a tourist from Guangdong province were killed and dozens were injured.
The dramatic crash at Tiananmen Square, which happened near to the People’s Hall where China’s leaders were meeting for a conference on women, quickly captured world media attention.
The license plate on the jeep reportedly had Xinjiang plates. On Thursday, police detained five suspects in connection with the crash, and announced that they were Islamist militants planning a holy war, and that the crash was a “violent terrorist attack” that was “carefully planned and organized.” At least some of the names suggest they may be Uyghur.
With the 3rd Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee opening on Nov 9, only two weeks away, many assumed this act of violence may have been committed in order to draw attention to China’s hardline policies against the Uyghurs who live in Xinjiang.
Although global media such as New York Times and Japan-based Asahi News have linked the crash to the unrest in Xinjiang, the central question of whether it was a suicidal car crash — perhaps an act of desperation — or actually a planned terrorist act remains unclear.
The Chinese government immediately sealed the site after the crash, temporarily arrested French journalists on spot, and destroyed their photos and footage of the incident, according to a New York Times report. BBC reported that “a BBC crew attempting to record footage at the location were briefly detained, while on Chinese social media some pictures of the scene appeared to be quickly deleted and comments were heavily censored.”
Not long after the crash, the Chinese government had put a notice out to Beijing hotels to look for two Uyghur men from Xinjiang (Yusup Ahmet and Yusup Omarniyaz) whom they suspected had a role in the car crash. China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Tuesday couldn’t confirm if the suicide car crash was a Uyghur terrorist act. Now the government seems certain it is.
The information blockade is troubling. This left plenty of room for China’s anti-terrorism consultants and researchers to speculate that the crash was an organized terrorist attack.
The day after the crash (October 29) in an interview with China Daily News, one of China’s anti-terrorism consultants, Mr. Li Wei quickly linked the suicide car crash to the leading Uyghur terrorist organization, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Details about this organization — said to be headquartered somewhere in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, and which sporadically releases anti-China videos — are murky at best.
Linking the crash to the group before any official details of the case were released seemed to have been inspired by supposed evidence, reported in Chinese media, that the car passengers waved a black “holy flag” (which frequently appears on ETIM made video propaganda). Asahi News interviewed an eyewitness who said the people in the car were waving a black flag with minority people’s writing (namely, Uyghur language) when they hit the Golden-water Bridge.
On Oct 30, two days after the crash, the Chinese government announced that this was a planned terrorist attack, and that a gas container, two long knives, iron sticks, and flags with extremist religious content were found in the car. It is interesting that the Chinese government was able to discover flags in the car after the car crashed, exploded, and burned. More surprising, the government identified the alleged “terrorists” as a family: 30- year-old Osman Hesen and his wife and 70-year-old mother.
The suicide car crash by a Uyghur family and the details of the crash — the driver apparently honked his horn and warned passengers on his way to hitting the Golden-water bridge — in China’s capital might undermine the Chinese assumption that this was a terrorist act planned and executed by terrorist organizations such as the ETIM.
And the so-called ‘holy war flag’ does not justify the association of this Uyghur family with the East Turkistan Islamic movement. It is highly possible that the black flag with “minority people’s language” is simply shahada to reaffirm their faith at the time of dying, when they drove the car to hit the political symbols of China, the Forbidden City on Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
With the October 31 announcement by the Chinese government that five suspects had been detained in connection with the crash, came details that two are women (Gulnar Tohtiniyaz and Buvjennet Abduqadir) and three are men.
Asahi News sent a journalist to visit the family of one of the arrested men (whose car was used in the incident) today (Nov. 1) in Yili/Ghulja. His parents were shocked to hear the news, and denied the possibility of their son’s involvement in terrorism.
This marks the second violent death of a Uyghur family this year. On April 23 a Uyghur family living in the Kashgar region was murdered by Chinese security forces who forcefully broke into their family home to search for so-called illegal religious texts.
In the face of the disappearance of two Uyghur families this year, it is time to reflect on why a 70-year old Uyghur mother and her family would desperately commit such extreme behavior in China? As Sean Roberts, an associate professor and director of international development studies at George Washington University, rightly points out in a column for CNN, this car crash may be more a cry of desperation than an act of terrorism.
The origins of this desperation can be found in the way the Chinese government has treated the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, including house-to house search for Islamic texts, prohibition of Uyghur students and state employees from entering the mosque, forcefully disrobing Uyghur women wearing niqabs (head-to-toe-Islamic covering), and denial of normal passport applications.
When the crash happened, official media (China-controlled) in Xinjiang wasted no time in blaming radical Islam; citing a connection between the alleged Uyghur Muslim adoption of the “Arab black burqa” (probably referring to the niqab) and Saudi form of Islam (Wahabbism) and the recent violence in China.
Early this year, Xinjiang’s Jinghe county (or in Uyghur language, Jing Nahiyisi) government even organized an educational campaign, targeted at Uyghurs, against Wahhabism. And during the holy month of Ramadan this summer, the Xinjiang government conducted a campaign against “burqa wearing” among the Uyghurs.
Xinjiang Daily has published articles attacking the Arab-style niqab and blamed Wahhabism for discouraging Uyghur traditional music and dance and causing violence in society.
Unfortunately for the Uyghurs there is no normal legal or administrative channel or mechanism for them to report and resolve wrongdoings inflicted on them. It is prohibited for Uyghurs to petition maltreatment in rural areas of Xinjiang, as the photo at left indicates.
The case of the wronged Chinese taxi driver, Ji Zhongxing, demonstrates the methods through which some Chinese citizens, including Uyghurs, seek to find an ultimate resolution when the Chinese legal and administrative systems fail to do them justice.
Ji Zhongxing blew himself up at the Beijing Airport on July 23 in order to protest against and publicize an injustice committed by Guangzong local police against him. (He was beaten to the point of being paralyzed in 2005.) And, in this case, probably since Mr. Ji Zhongxin was a Han (not a Muslim), he was not viewed as terrorist, nor was he linked to any terrorist organizations.
Now, only two weeks after the Muslim festival Eid Qurban (sacrifice) the Uyghur family that died in their jeep on Tiananmen Square have perhaps sacrificed themselves for the Uyghur cause in order to tell Beijing and the world about their individual, family, and ethnic misery in their hometown in Xinjiang.
Ultimately, in addition to the origins of the suffering inflicted on the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, how China perceives Uyghurs in a regional context can’t be overlooked.
With anti-terror wars being waged in Central Asia, China seems to have has given itself license to link anything Uyghur with terrorism. On November 1, Secretary of China’s Politics and Law Committee, Meng Jianzhu, met with the chairman of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), Zhang Xinfeng (also a Chinese), in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, reported this terrorist attack, and called for further cooperation among SCO member countries.
From Li Wei’s association of the crash with the ETIM on October 29, to Chinese official recognition of the attack as a terrorist act on Oct. 30, to the quick arrest of five suspects and Meng Jianzhu’s report to the SCO on Oct. 31, Chinese officials predicted, confirmed, and managed to “propagandize” the suicide car crash as an organized terrorist attack within three days. What is lacking is solid evidence and basic justice for Uyghurs in China.
Haiyun Ma teaches in the history department at Frostburg State University in Maryland. His teaching and research interests are Chinese History, Islam and Muslims of China (including Xinjiang), China-Middle East relations, and China-Central Asian Relations. He is also an expert on China-Middle East relations at the Middle East Institute, and his writing has also been featured on ISLAMiCommentary and Informed Comment.