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Tiananmen Attack Spotlights China's Beleaguered Uighurs

On Oct. 28, a jeep plowed into a group of pedestrians and burst into flames on the avenue next to Tiananmen Square, the massive public square in Beijing that's the symbolic heart of the Chinese capital. According to Chinese state media reports, the crash killed three people in the vehicle as well as two pedestrians, while injuring 40 others. On Oct. 30, the Chinese police announced that the incident was an act of "terrorism," a suicide attack carried out by three Uighurs -- a man, his wife and his mother -- from Xinjiang, a restive region in northwestern China about 2,000 miles from Beijing. Police also announced they had arrested five people with Uighur names for planning the crash. The attack came at a sensitive time, as China's ruling Chinese Communist Party prepares for an important plenum meeting on Nov. 9, and is the most high-profile suicide attack to strike China's capital in recent memory.

Xinjiang, which means "new frontier" in Chinese, has seen a number of bloody incidents in recent years. In June 2013, 35 people were killed in an attack against a police station in Xinjiang's Shanshan county. In April 2013, clashes with police killed 21 people, including 15 police officers, in Kashgar. In July 2009, ethnic clashes in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, left more than 100 dead. (While the precise death tolls are hard to verify, the severity of the conflicts is indisputable.) 

If Xinjiang's troubles seemed remote to residents of Beijing, the Oct. 28 attack brought them much closer to home. "This is the first time that I've ever felt so close to a terrorist attack," remarked one user of Sina Weibo, China's Twitter. Another tweeted, "My God, they can do this in front of Tiananmen? I'm very worried all of the sudden, how do they prevent this type of attacks in the future? Vehicle inspections?"

Uighurs, mostly Turkic-speaking Muslims living in northwest China, are one of the country's 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities. An estimated 10 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, making up approximately 40 percent of its population, and bristle under heavy-handed restrictions placed on their language, religion, and way of life. Han officials there often fail to learn functional Uighur, and traditional Uighur male gatherings called meshrep are often banned as "illicit" or dispersed by police.

Making matters worse, anti-Uighur discrimination and profiling abound in their homeland. One Weibo user wrote," I have been to Urumqi, Kashgar, and Turpan in Xinjiang, and as a Han person, I feel really sorry for the Uighurs. The security checks are always focused on the minorities. That's a problem, a big problem."

In China's urban areas, the relationship between Han, China's predominant ethnic group, and Uighurs -- who are often migrants there eking out a living as street vendors or day laborers -- can be quite contentious. Colored by poor personal experiences with vendors or pickpockets, many Han attach negative stereotypes to Uighurs and bitterly complain about policies that they perceive to be favorable to minorities such as Uighurs.

Some of those complaints have found their way online. In Dec. 2012, a tweet by a local police department in Hunan province went viral on China's Internet because it reported a scuffle between Uighur cake vendors and Han, which ended with the Uighurs being compensated $25,000 for the destroyed cake. For Han Internet users who related stories of being forced to buy cake by Uighur migrants, sometimes at knifepoint, the seemingly outrageous sum confirmed their long-held suspicion that Uighurs receive preferential treatment because of their ethnic minority status.

Qin Ailing, a Chinese reporter who has written about Xinjiang, argued that personal relationships were the only way to change the dynamic. On Oct. 30, she tweeted that Chinese should "really pay attention to the Uighur friends around you and the difficult predicaments that they've encountered in their lives -- even those who may be preparing for ‘terrorist activities.'"

But with the latest incident, rising comity between Hans and Uighurs is unlikely. "After a terrorist attack in China's political center, there is no way" that the government will relax its grip on the region, one Weibo user commented. Conciliation has failed, he wrote, and "keeping up the high pressure is the only way to go" -- even if, he continued, a "vicious cycle" of crackdown and backlash is inevitable.

AFP/Getty Images

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