Monday, November 04, 2013

Uighurs score propaganda victory by first-ever attack in Beijing?: Questions raised by China's dismissal of its General in Xinjiang following crash at Tienanmen Square

China's version of what happened in the case of the recent "suicide attack" in Tienanmen Square is highly dubious.

The world has been told that, in a crash incited by Islamist separatists from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), five people died when a car ploughed into a crowd in Tiananmen Square last Monday, killing three occupants and two tourists, and injuring 38 visitors and security officers.

Obfuscation is normal in such matters in China: in the absence of a free press and independent investigation, all one can do is point out some of the things that are puzzling:

1. China claims that the incident, when "a car ran into a crowd", was a suicide attack. But suicide attacks don't have two passengers alongside a driver (and one of the occupants was the driver's mother). Moreover, how can a suicide attack vehicle have been spotted before the attack? (The car was clearly being chased at the time it crashed and caught fire, though it is unclear how long the car had been chased. Why WAS it being chased?)

2. Was the car fire was accidental, deliberately set off by the occupants, or caused by any gunfire from the car chasing the crash vehicle?

3. In the case of a suicide or terrorist attack, any regime would want to ensure that it collects all possible evidence. However, China moved very quickly to eliminate all possible photos by the public, news, discussion, etc. The crash site itself was cleared remarkably rapidly. No doubt this was at least partly for political reasons, as Tienanmen Square is a highly public and sensitive political location, not far away from China's top leadership compound Zhongnanhai; the timing of the "crash" was also awkward, given that it is in the run-up to one of the most important Communist Party meetings in history, which is supposed to unveil the path ahead for the Chinese economy, including long-awaited reforms after President Xi Jinping - who ascended to power in theory a year ago - takes full control. But the speed with which all trace of the "crash" was removed suggests official cover-up of whatever happened.

4. Today, I have just seen news that China has now not only removed its General in Xinjiang (General Peng Yong) but has also stripped him of his post as a member of the Standing Committee of the Xinjiang Communist Party. This is not how any regime can be expected to react to a mere suicide bombing or even a terrorist attack. This is not even how any regime reacts to perceived weakness on the part of a military man responsible for keeping a lid on a troubled region. This is a most severe and public rebuke, short of a court martial (which may of course follow, but we have no way of knowing that). The Chinese humiliation of the General raises questions about whether the Uighurs' East Turkestan Islamic Movement has infiltrated the Chinese establishment up to a very senior level - though possibly short of the General himself. Unless of course there is some entirely different explanation, and ETIM is merely a convenient whipping boy.

5. Chinese state media said the attack was the work of eight suspected Islamist militants who had collected 400 litres of fuel, weapons and 40,000 yuan (£4,100; $6,600). It is not clear whether the 400 litres of fuel were inside the SUV - if so, that's a lot of fuel to be carrying alongside a lot of money. Would you expect suicide bombers to be carrying this much money?

6. While an estimate of the amount of fuel and any weapons in the car might be expected following analysis, China's official machinery moved to make the rather specific announcement of these things remarkably quickly. We know the Chinese are efficient. But that efficient?

7. It was particularly clever of the Chines to have identified from the remains of the car the amount of money in it: the Yuan may be a very strong currency today, but are Yuan notes so strong as to resist fire?

8. Even if we grant that Yuan notes, thanks to the magical power endowed on them by the Communist Party, are in fact totally fire-resistant, what explanation is there for the "flag with extremist religious content" supposedly discovered by Chinese authorities in the burned vehicle: was that flag, presumably because of Islamic magic, totally fire-resistant too?

9. Following the crash, Chinese authorities were apparently trying to trace "four number plates from Xinjiang". How come?

10. They were also trying to trace at least one non-Uighur (or mainland Chinese) man: again, how come?

If the attack is indeed either a suicide attack on the part of the Uighurs, was it terrorist action or merely a desperate act on the part of people who "could not find solutions to their problems and were forced to take extreme actions" as one post on Chinese social media is reported to have said?

In case it was a terrorist attack, the Uighurs have an unprecedented propaganda victory for having staged the first known Uighur action right in the centre of Beijing.

On the other hand, if it was a case of desperation, it highlights the need for China to give ordinary Uighurs the possibility of seeking redress for injustices they suffer under Chinese rule.

Interestingly, on the social media, the incident raised Chinese concerns about society getting increasingly violent and unsafe. As one post put it: "This happened in the most heavily guarded place in China. So is there any place left that is still safe?"

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