The sight of the deadly car crash last Monday near Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
China's Demonization of Uighurs
  • Tue, 11/05/2013 - 21:08

By Rebiya Kadeer
Nov. 4, 2013 11:48 a.m. ET

The Chinese authorities' response to the crashing of a car into a bridge near to Tiananmen Square last week has left more questions than answers. The government claim that the incident was a "carefully planned, organized and premeditated" terror attack carried out by Uighurs is simply not believable and not backed up by any verifiable evidence.

The state moved swiftly to suppress news of the incident. The rapidity with which censors deleted social media posts and blocked online searches related to the crash in Beijing surprised even seasoned analysts of the Chinese Internet. When some overseas journalists showed up to Tiananmen Square to report on the incident, they were detained and the pictures in their cameras deleted.

When Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying was asked about the incident she was evasive, and China Central Television initially reported little about the incident. It's now clear the Chinese government was buying time to create an official narrative.

Then two days later, a short Xinhua report labeled the crash an act of terror. However, the official account contained a number of inconsistencies. It claimed a Uighur man, his wife and his 70-year-old mother carried out the attack, and that after the car hit the bridge, the occupants set the vehicle on fire. Police said "gasoline, equipment full of gasoline, two knives and steel sticks as well as a flag with extremist religious content [were] in the jeep."

Overseas news agencies and Chinese netizens were quick to doubt the official explanation. They asked, why would a terrorist take his wife and aging mother on an attack? And how did clearly flammable materials such as a flag survive in the burned-out vehicle?

Some eyewitnesses recalled seeing the driver swerving to avoid pedestrians and hearing the car's horn. Furthermore, the fact that spare gasoline was found in the vehicle is not remarkable since the car allegedly had license plates from Xinjiang, the Uighur homeland also known as East Turkestan. The road to Beijing is 2,000 miles long through sparsely populated areas, so most drivers carry cans of gasoline to avoid being stranded. In short, other explanations are plausible.

Officials have a strong incentive to lie about what really happened. The Chinese Communist Party needs to foment ethnic hatred among the majority Han Chinese against the Uighur minority to cover up a trail of failed policies in Xinjiang.

The Uighurs are a peaceful people with a storied history and complex culture. The Han Chinese are similarly blessed with remarkable achievements as a people. The enmity that has been built up between them has been stirred up by aggressive Chinese government policies aimed at wiping out Uighur culture, including excessive curbs on religion and the banning of Uighur as a language of instruction in schools.

Uighurs have developed legitimate grievances against the Chinese state as a result. When Uighurs peacefully express those grievances, the government labels such demonstrations as one of the "three evils" of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. This has been going on since the Chinese government opportunistically used the events of 9/11 to declare it had its own terror problem.

By demonizing the Uighur people as terrorists or criminals, Beijing justifies its crackdowns on the Uighur people as necessary to protect the security of Han Chinese. The message is that without a strong Communist Party there would be chaos. On the other hand, smooth relations between Hans and Uighurs threaten the Party's monopoly of power and contradict the government's "divide and rule" approach.

Every time the government labels an incident involving Uighurs as terrorism, even if the allegations are poorly constructed and disputed by independent scholars, it strengthens Han Chinese fears. The enemy of a peaceful future between Uighur and Han Chinese is the Chinese government.

Already journalists are reporting that security measures have been further tightened in Xinjiang as a result of last week's incident. Police are subjecting "ethnic looking" people to stricter inspections. In this atmosphere all Uighurs are suspects. It is no wonder so many feel like they have no stake in the political, economic and cultural future of their communities and region.

Heavy-handed policies are responsible for the upsurge in tensions, not jihadism or terrorism, and this is creating a vicious cycle. Without a fundamental change in policies toward Xinjiang and other minority areas such as Tibet and Inner Mongolia, Beijing's quest for "stability" is self-defeating.

If the international community continues to ignore the plight of the Uighurs and other minorities in China, more tragedies will result. Governments and private citizens should ask Beijing to respect minority cultures and allow minorities to play a greater role in modern China. More international attention to the repression of Uighurs is the only hope we have to convince the next generation of Chinese leaders to change course.

Ms. Kadeer is the head of the World Uyghur Congress. Her autobiography is entitled "Dragon Fighter: One Woman's Epic Struggle for Peace with China." A related editorial appears today.