Tiananmen Attack: Islamist Terror or Chinese Protest?

Posted: January 12, 2014 in China Brief
Tags: , , , , ,

Another piece on Xinjiang for the new year, this one for Jamestown’s China Brief providing a bit of an overview of what has been happening in violent terms in the past year. Some editorial choices I would not have made, but it is something I am going to be writing more about going forwards. Around New Year’s day, I was quoted for a piece for the South China Morning Post about one of the violent incidents to close the year.

Tiananmen Attack: Islamist Terror or Chinese Protest?
Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 1
January 9, 2014 05:21 PM
By: Raffaello Pantucci

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2013 was a violent year for China and Xinjiang. On December 30, at 6:30 in the morning, a group of individuals believed to be Uighur attacked a police station in Shache County (or Yarkand) near Kashgar with “explosive devices” (Xinhua, December 30). According to official reports, no security officials were killed in the incident, in which eight were killed and a ninth arrested. The official government report stated that the group was led by Wusiman Balati and Abuduaini Abudukadi (also written as Usman Barat and Abdugheni Abdukhadir), a pair who “held successive gatherings” since August in which they watched “violent terrorist videos” discussed “religious extremist thought” and formed a group that raised money, made explosives, tested these explosives out and planned violent activities (Xinhua, December 30, 2013).

The high point came on October 28, when a jeep crashed into railings in front of the iconic statue of Mao Zedong in the middle of Tiananmen Square. The incident was attributed to a Uighur named Usmen Hasan (Xinhua, November 26). Usmen, as well as two passengers reported to be his wife and mother, were killed, along with a Filipino tourist and a domestic Chinese tourist from Guangdong. Several more Filipino and Japanese tourists were also injured in the incident (Xinhua, November 3, 2013). The incident was praised in mid-November by Abdullah Mansour, believed to be the current leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) (Reuters, November 23, 2013).

While these incidents were both connected to Xinjiang in some way, a double bombing outside government offices in Taiyuan in the first week of November demonstrated that terrorist-like violence in China is not always linked to the province. The Taiyuan bombing was ultimately attributed to a taxi driver “angry at society” for unspecified reasons (China Daily, November 9, 2013).

Context in Xinjiang

Subsequent to the incident a series of five arrests were made of individuals from Hotan, Xinjiang. The group was alleged to have gathered some 40,000 RMB in advance of the incident and had conducted three reconnaissance trips to the Square. They had established their group in September and came to Beijing by SUV and train on October 7 (Xinhua, November 1, 2013). Xinjiang military commander, Peng Yong, was also fired from the province’s Communist Party Standing Committee (Caixin, November 4, 2013). The sacking, while not officially linked to the incident in Tiananmen Square follows a pattern of dismissals in the wake of major security lapses. In the wake of the Urumqi riots in July 2009, Party Secretary Li Zhi and Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (PSB) head Liu Yaohua were dismissed in September, while under a year later province governor and long-time boss Wang Lequan was shunted sideways to be Deputy Head of the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee in Beijing. Explicit links to the trouble in province were not made, though the intent was clear.

The incident came in the wake of a long, brutal summer in Xinjiang that was marked by flare-ups involving multiple deaths and casualties. An unofficial tally by the author places the total number of deaths in the triple digits, though it is unclear whether this is a total accounting of what had taken place. [1] Videos have emerged showing Uighurs or Chinese-speaking individuals on battlefields in Syria. [2] In July 2013, the Global Times reported the case of Memeti Aili, a 23-year-old Uighur who claimed to have been studying in Istanbul, Turkey when he was approached by radical groups and recruited to fight in Syria. Memeti Aili was arrested as he tried to return to Xinjiang to complete his assigned mission to “carry out violent attack and improve fighting skills,” a task he had reportedly been given by ETIM (Global Times, July 1, 2013). The exact nature of his plot was not revealed, but it was held up as a specific instance of how the fight in Syria was becoming a direct problem for China.

It is clear from magazines, statements and videos showing people training and fighting somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan’s badlands that a group exists outside Xinjiang that threatens Chinese authorities—calling itself the Hizb al Islami al Turkestani (Turkestan Islamic Party, TIP). Occasional reports surface of individuals dying in drone strikes or of plots linked to networks around the group internationally (Dubai, July 2008 and Oslo, July 2010), and al-Qaeda leaders will mention the plight of the Uighurs in some of their speeches. [3] Most recently, their plight was highlighted in a video released by the Somalia-based militant group al-Shabaab, with the group contrasting the Uighurs’ plight and the international focus on Tibet as evidence of the West’s not caring about Muslim suffering. But there is little direct evidence that outside groups have much direct connection with the incidents that take place in the province. In one incident from 2011, an individual identified as being involved in an incident by the Chinese authorities was shown in a video released by Islam Awazi (TIP’s media wing), while more recently the group praised as jihad an incident in which 15 security officials were killed in the province though they stopped short of claiming the incident.

The government has not stopped linking the group to the threat, offering as evidence videos or other radical material in the possession of individuals involved in incidents. In the most recent case, authorities claimed the group had been watching extremist videos—presumably ones linked to the group or other al-Qaeda affiliates. But the directional link has been somewhat limited in its evidence, with incidents often seeming to have some local spark, though it is certainly notable that the manner in which these incidents break out is often similar.

The specifics around the group who ended up in Tiananmen remain equally unclear. According to government accounts, they were linked to ETIM and were in possession of radical material (Xinhua, November 26, 2013). Highlighting the degree to which the government continues to see ETIM and other Central Asian groups as a threat, news emerged shortly before the incident that China had pushed the Pakistani government to proscribe ETIM, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) (BBC Urdu, October 23, 2013). The concern for China is that these groups may be drawing on their common Central Asian heritage and language to plot together—efforts so far mostly felt in Afghanistan, but that might be redirected towards China in the wake of NATO withdrawal. No released evidence about the Tiananmen incident demonstrated any specific link or direction from outside groups, but the proximity of the statements in the Pakistani press and Meng Jianzhu’s categoric declarations about ETIM’s links to the Tiananmen incident illustrate a willingness by China to draw links between instability at home and anti-state groups in China’s near neighborhood.

Violent Petitioners

A divergent account of the causes behind the incident emerged from an account in Radio Free Asia (RFA), that drew primarily on an interview with a former village chief from Yengi Aymaq village in Akto County, who claimed that the attack had taken place exactly a year from the time when Chinese authorities had torn down a mosque in the village. According to former village chief Hamut Turdi, the attack was revenge for the local authorities destruction of a mosque that the community had raised money to build, which was torn down when the government claimed it was an “illegal extension” to an existing prayer room (Radio Free Asia, November 6, 2013). Others cited in the RFA report claiming to know Usmen Hasan said that he had lost a family member during the bloody July 2009 riots and another that his younger brother had died in a “mysterious traffic accident” that had been “blamed on the majority Han Chinese or the Chinese authorities” (RFA, November 6, 2013). None of the accounts were independently corroborated.

In the account supplied by RFA, the logic is that Usman was drawing on a Chinese tradition of petitioning the Emperor as a result of injustice at the hands of local authorities. This longstanding tradition is one that countless others have called upon through setting themselves on fire. To give only examples from the majority Han ethnicity: a group of five believed to be linked to Falun Gong set themselves alight in January 2001, a man from Anhui complaining about forced relocation did so in September 2003, and, most recently, in November 2011 a man from Hubei set fire to himself in anger “over the outcome of civil litigation” (Xinhua, September 15, 2003; Daily Telegraph, November 16, 2011). Tiananmen Square is also a draw for angry or deranged individuals of other sorts too. Two days prior to the jeep incident in Tiananmen Square, an argument in a staff canteen in the Forbidden City adjacent to the Square led to one man stabbing two colleagues before trying to kill himself (South China Morning Post, October 25, 2013). This followed a summer in Beijing in which a man went on a stabbing rampage in Carrefour killing one and injuring four (Xinhua, July 22, 2013) as well as another who had killed an American and a Chinese national in another shopping mall in the city (Agence France Press, July 18, 2013).

High profile incidents that might elsewhere be described as terrorism, in China are instead seen as forms of petitioning. In July, Ji Zhongxing, a wheelchair-bound man, detonated an explosive outside the arrivals gate in Beijing International Airport’s third terminal. Injuring only himself and a police officer, Ji claimed to be angry at the fact that he had not been adequately compensated for a beating by Guangdong authorities that had left him paralyzed in a wheelchair. He was later jailed for six years (Xinhua, October 15, 2013; BBC, October 15, 2013). In July 2011, disgruntled farmer Qian Mingqi detonated three large devices outside official buildings in Fuzhou, Jiangxi leading to four deaths (including Mr. Qian’s) (Xinhua, May 31, 2011, 2013). This is the context in which Chinese media and the public viewed the attack in Taiyuan, in which a coordinated set of bombs armed with ball bearings were detonated outside an official building in the heart of the city.

China’s Response

Random individuals with the ability to build and effectively detonate multiple explosives in a coordinated and lethal manner might seem to be more menacing than an attempt to drive a car into a crowd. But from the perspective of the Chinese state, such “lone wolf” terrorism is less dangerous than Uighurs’ attempts to speak for a community. Even without clear ties to an organized group, they offer a potential alternative source of legitimacy and an alternative power base.

For Beijing, the problem is clearly a complicated one. On the one hand, it is undeniable that some Uighur extremists exist and are connecting to global al-Qaeda-affiliated or -inspired networks. But it is not clear that these groups and networks are able to launch large-scale attacks within China. The incident in Tiananmen Square may have been substantial in its impact, but no evidence of external direction has been provided. But external direction or not, the growing tempo of violence emanating from the province in the past year highlights a domestic problem that seems to be growing worse rather than better.

In parallel to this, China faces a problem of petitioners angry at the state who are using increasingly violent means to express their rage—from random acts of self-immolation, to random stabbings, to massive explosions that have so far killed mercifully few. In some ways these seem similar to the Xinjiang-related incidents, but the background context is fundamentally more alarming to authorities given the potential for a single incident related to Xinjiang to be seen as part of a broader separatist movement. Thus, the Chinese government seeks to distinguish between violent protest and terrorism, and ensure that the response is one that is moderated in ways that do not simply inflame tensions in Xinjiang further.

Notes

  1. The author has been maintaining an unofficial tally based on official reports that can be provided on request.
  2. One video showed a possibly Uighur individual: < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjrUhb7Lx1o >. Another highlighted ethnically-Han Bo Wang talking directly to the Chinese people in Mandarin: < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maccGe9MSMY >
  3. On the Dubai and Oslo plots, see Terrorism Monitor, July 22, 2010; and “Manchester, New York and Oslo: Three Centrally Directed Al-Qa’ida Plots,” CTC Sentinel, August 1, 2010.
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