International

Rights activists demand transparency on Tiananmen car crash in China

Uighur rights groups say Beijing may use the crash to legitimize alleged 'cultural genocide' in Xinjiang

Police officers fence off the scene of a car accident in front of Tiananmen Gate at Tiananmen Square on Oct. 28, 2013 in Beijing, China.
Getty Images

Chinese authorities and media seem certain the Tiananmen car crash that killed five and injured 40 Monday was an organized act, perpetrated by the country’s Muslim ethnic Uighur minority.

But international Uighur and human rights advocates are demanding proof, saying China is already using the incident to legitimize alleged religious and socioeconomic repression that experts say has accelerated in recent months.

China’s Public Security Bureau said on the Twitter-like microblog Sina Weibo Wednesday that along with the Usmen Hassan, the alleged driver of the jeep that crashed at Tiananmen, were his wife and mother. Authorities have already reported that they are investigating a number of Uighur suspects allegedly implicated in the crash.

"The Chinese authorities should make available all relevant information, so that the general public can understand what happened," Sharon Hom, the executive director of Hong Kong-based advocacy group Human Rights in China (HRIC), told Al Jazeera.

The international Uighur community remains skeptical.

"It took the government nearly three days to come up with an explanation for what happened," said Alim Seytoff, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur American Association.

Seytoff noted that, according to international media reports and images that came out of the incident, the police quickly erected a barricade around the crash site, "detained reporters, deleted footage and cleaned up the whole crime scene in less than two hours."

"If he was a terrorist, why would he bring his wife and mother?" said Seytoff.

Other experts say the crash did not seem like the work of an organized armed group.

"This incident in Beijing doesn't look like a well-orchestrated terrorist attack, but it looks like the acts of an individual," said Dru Gladney, a Xinjiang expert and professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California. Gladney said the attack was more "idiosyncratic" than acts of terror orchestrated by groups like Al-Qaeda.

Numerous Public Safety Bureau authorities declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding the crash.

If Monday's car crash was indeed politically motivated, it was a last-ditch effort to draw international attention to the cause of politically, socially and economically marginalized Uighurs in China, said Nuri Musabay, the secretary general of the World Uyghur Congress, which advocates for Uighur causes outside of China.

"They don't have the right to live in East Turkestan," Musabay told Al Jazeera, employing the separatist term for the territory officially known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in China's far-west.

Many Uighurs have complained not only of sweeping religious restrictions affected by an ostensibly socialist, secular Chinese state, but of stark economic inequalities with the sizeable Han Chinese population that moved into the region as a part of economic development efforts.

"Finally, they might have tried to end this occupation," said Musabay.

Beijing has accused the World Uyghur Congress of promoting unrest in Xinjiang.

"We don't want any violence. We want peace, but the Chinese never listen to us," Musabay said, adding that the international media's presence in what he calls East Turkestan is extremely restricted, and that if the driver chose to go to Beijing, it was likely because there is a larger international media presence there, and because Chinese authorities would more likely heed a call that hit closer to home.

Both Musabay and Seytoff said that, as natural resource-rich Muslim nations continue to do business with China, they appear to forget the plight of what Seytoff called "a historical Muslim community."

"The Arab and Muslim world never pay attention," Musabay said. "We suffer alone."


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If Monday's car crash was indeed politically motivated, it was a last-ditch effort to draw international attention to the cause of politically, socially and economically marginalized Uighurs in China, said Nuri Musabay, the secretary general of the World Uyghur Congress, which advocates for Uighur causes outside of China.

"They don't have the right to live in East Turkestan," Musabay told Al Jazeera, employing the separatist term for the territory officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in China's far-west.

Many Uighurs have complained not only of sweeping religious restrictions but of stark economic inequalities with the sizeable Han Chinese population that moved into the region as a part of economic development efforts.

"Finally, they might have tried to end this occupation," said Musabay.

Beijing has accused the World Uyghur Congress of promoting unrest in Xinjiang.

"We don't want any violence. We want peace, but the Chinese never listen to us," Musabay said, adding that the international media's presence in what he calls East Turkestan is extremely restricted, and that if the driver chose to go to Beijing, it was likely because there is a larger international media presence there, and because Chinese authorities would more likely heed a call that hit closer to home.

Both Musabay and Seytoff said that, as natural resource-rich Muslim nations continue to do business with China, they appear to forget the plight of what Seytoff called "a historical Muslim community."

"The Arab and Muslim world never pay attention," Musabay said. "We suffer alone."

Legitimizing 'genocide'

Whatever the motives behind Monday's attack, a tightening of restrictions on China's Uighurs appears imminent.

"Terrorism is an international enemy, and many national armies have been tasked with the mission of anti-terrorism," Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told the press Thursday.

Human Rights Watch's senior researcher on Asia, Nicholas Bequelin, told Al Jazeera that Beijing appears to be "trying to engineer or spin specific incidents to legitimate policies in place for a long time."

Beijing attributes the ethnic clashes that killed at least 21 in April and another 27 in July in Xinjiang to "terrorist" and "separatist" groups. Uighurs say the assailants are upset with social repression and a lack of opportunities to partake in the Han Chinese-dominated local economy.

Seytoff said that since the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., Beijing has used the international community's so-called "war on terror" to justify its restrictions on Uighurs.

"After 9/11, the fact that the Uighurs are Muslim has helped the Chinese justify otherwise unjustifiable repression in the region," said Seytoff

Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur rights advocate based in Beijing, told Al Jazeera that after Chinese President Xi Jinping penned a number of energy deals with Central Asian partners last month that will see an influx of oil flow directly into Xinjiang, Chinese authorities have ramped up efforts to quell unrest in the strategic region.

Tohti reported said those efforts have included bloody crackdowns on people implicated in ethnic riots this year — 34 Uighurs were killed in relation to this year's unrest in August — and harsher religious restrictions. Musabay said the restrictions, aimed at forcefully assimilating Uighurs into mainstream, secular Chinese society, were tantamount to "cultural genocide."

Pomona's Gladney said that while Beijing's response to Uighur unrest in recent decades has been to crack down on unrest with force, "what you need is reform and for people to think they are participating in the China dream," the economic success story that has lifted many Chinese out of poverty in just over three decades.

In September, Tohti, who has been placed under house arrest four times this year, said his treatment by Chinese authorities is a barometer for the severity of their restrictions on Xinjiang.

Al Jazeera

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