The Other Tibet: The Tiananmen Square Crash and Uyghurs

Terrorism is more than a Middle Eastern issue.  Islamic terrorism is more than a Middle Eastern issue.  The prominence of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other affiliate organizations in the public consciousness often obscures terrorism’s diverse impact on the 21st century.  The violence and social unrest that inevitably exist among communities in the Middle East that face terrorism are important.  Nevertheless, terrorism (especially in relation to Islam) in other parts of the world is often forgotten.

On October 28th, 2013 a 4×4 Jeep veered off the road and crashed into the Golden Water Bridge in Tiananmen Square, the central square of Beijing located north of the Forbidden City.  The car burst into flames in the shadow of the famous portrait of Chinese leader Mao Zedong.  This iconic square has seen the pro-democracy and anti-corruption protests of 1989 as well as countless other demonstrations in the turbulent history of the People’s Republic.  Usmen Hesen, an ethnic Uyghur (pronounced “WEE-gher”) from a region called Xinjiang, drove the car along with his wife and mother.  All perished in the blaze.  Two other tourists were killed and approximately 40 people were injured. It is one of the largest such incidents at Tiananmen Square in recent memory.


Image courtesy of gadgetdan, © 2006, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of gadgetdan, © 2006, some rights reserved.

It can be easy to use terrorism as a blanket term to describe any act of violence in a public setting.  Nevertheless, it is important to remember who benefits from these labels and why certain governments are so quick to label certain ethnic, religious, or regional groups with that fear-inducting word: “terrorists.”  After the recent crash in Tiananmen Square in October, the Chinese government immediately demonized not only the individuals involved but also the ethnicity that they represented.

In so doing, the government delegitimized almost all of the social conditions in this ethnic region.  This fear and denial on the part of central government officials could prove disastrous in the long term.  What I, and many Westerners, don’t know about the Uyghurs and other oppressed ethnic minorities is problematic.  What the Chinese government doesn’t want to admit about the Uyghurs and other oppressed ethnic minorities is potentially self-destructive.

The ethnic separatist conflict in the Xinjiang region (located in north-western China) surrounds the indigenous Uyghur people.  The Chinese government has historically oppressed them since the official invasion in 1949.  The land borders Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Russia, and Afghanistan.  They refer to it as “East Turkestan.”  The official Mandarin “Xinjiang” translates to “New Frontier;” an ironic nod to China’s expansionist aspirations.

Many in the region resent what they perceive to be an oppressive, patronizing, and perhaps even imperialistic relationship with the central government.  Culturally, the Uyghurs do not conform to the homogenous image of the Chinese populous that many in the West hold.  Their language is Turkic.  Most of them are Sunni Muslim.  They are descendent from ancient traders along the Silk Road and are genetically both Caucasian and East Asian.

The Western conception of a homogeneous Chinese population may be the exact myth that many Chinese leaders cannot seem to publicly reject.  Proponents of creating a monolithic Chinese identity may make it more difficult for ethnic minorities, like the Uyghurs, to remain connected to their cultural, linguistic, and religious heritage.  Unlike the much-publicized separatist movements in Tibet, Uyghurs enjoy almost no international recognition or support among anyone other than foreign policy experts.  This, however, does not mean that they lack political legitimacy or a genuine ability to threaten Chinese social stability.

The attack at Tiananmen Square is in no way a worthy encapsulation of the ethnic tension in Xinjiang.  Usmen Hesen did not fully represent Uyghurs or their collective political or religious aspirations.  Nevertheless, the social frustration and powerlessness that likely precipitated the event reflects elements of the social unrest in the region.  Most Uyghurs or Chinese Muslims do not officially condone acts of terror.

According to some sources, Usmem Hesen had a family member who had been killed in the 2009 ethnic riots in Xinjiang and another in suspicious circumstances that he believed to be related to the government.  Upon closer study, the current unrest in Xinjiang is a virtual gold mine of conspiracy, violence, and suppression.  The 21st century has been scattered with riots, bombings, and attacks in the region.  Much of this has been due the migration of Han people into the region.  The Han are ethnically Chinese and have migrated ever-rapidly to the region, especially into the capital Urumqi.  Many Uyghurs claims that the Hans have exacerbated their job prospects and created a deliberately unjust labour disparity.  In a region where Uyghurs dominated 50 years ago, Han Chinese inhabitants are now a majority.

Along with these ethnic and economic stresses, the Chinese government has instituted wildly oppressive policies in the recent years.  Here is a sampling of regulations imposed within the last five years: restrictions on the number of Uyghurs allowed to go on pilgrimage to Mecca for Hajj, forbiddance of fasting during Ramadan, requirements that all Imams for mosques be approved by the government, phasing out of Uyghur language in academic and business settings, and travel restrictions for Uyghurs.  Taxi drivers can be fined if they pick up women wearing a hijabs.

Beyond these oppressive practices, the Chinese government has imposed even tighter crackdowns on Uyghurs since the crash in Beijing.   University students in Xinjiang now cannot graduate unless the government approves their political values. Even if they are proficient and qualified, they cannot receive a diploma unless they conform to a fixed ideology.  There are more than a few people who find this type of ideological oppression to be very short-sighted and potentially ruinous.

Also in response to the attack, Ilham Tonti, likely the most prominent scholar and advocate for Uyghur minority rights and professor at Beijing’s Central Nationalities University, was the target of alleged violence.  Purportedly, on November 2nd a group of men connected with the government rammed into a car carrying him, his wife, and his two young children.  According to reports, these men threatened his life and forcibly inspected his and his wife’s phones.  Also according to reports, 700 new checkpoints have been instituted in Xinjiang almost exclusively in densely populated Uyghur residential areas.

China is on the rise. It is expanding and growing at unprecedented rates. But behind the shiny buildings and even shinier economic numbers, there lies a hidden China.  This is a China where oppression is the norm and where none of globalization’s wealth has trickled down.  Herein lies China’s future.  In terms of foreign policy, China is much more vulnerable than it appears at first glance.  Ethnic oppression is but one of a whole host of parasitic problems in this country.  Deplorable working conditions, breakdowns in the family structure, vast pollution, weak education systems, and rampant corruption make for an almost insurmountable tide of social unrest.  The explosion at Tiananmen Square in October acts as a wake up call to all those who have forgotten the ugly side of China’s rise.

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