BEIJING – In a dusty outdoor curio market in China’s capital, traders from the minority Uighur community gathered Wednesday to swap stories about the omnipresent harassment they say they suffer at the hands of the police. That scrutiny has only intensified after this week’s deadly vehicle attack at Tiananmen Square in which Uighurs are the prime suspects.
Before the day ended, five suspects had been arrested on suspicion of involvement in Monday’s audacious attack, which a police statement described as a carefully planned terrorism strike — Beijing’s first in recent history. Police also said knives, iron rods, gasoline and a flag with religious slogans were found in the vehicle used in the suicide strike.
Since the incident, police “come to search us every day. We don’t know why. Our IDs are checked every day, and we don’t know what is happening,” said Ali Rozi, 28, a Uighur trader at the sprawling Panijayuan market.
“We have trouble every day, but we haven’t done anything,” said Rozi, who is from Kashgar in Xinjiang province, where most Uighurs live.
Militants from the Muslim Uighur community have been fighting a low-intensity insurgency against Chinese rule in Xinjiang for years. Recent clashes, including an attack on a police station, have killed at least 56 people this year. The Chiinese government typically calls the incidents terrorist attacks.
The police scrutiny of the Uighurs in Beijing highlights years of discrimination that have fueled Uighur demands for independence for their northwestern homeland of Xinjiang. Many Uighurs say they face routine discrimination, irksome restrictions on their culture and Muslim religion, and economic disenfranchisement that has left them largely poor even as China’s economy booms.
In Monday’s incident, a sports utility vehicle barreled through crowds and burst into flames near the portrait of Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Gate. Three of the car’s occupants and two bystanders were killed and dozens were injured in the strike at the capital’s political heart, where Communist Party leaders live and work.
The incident is the first such attack outside Xinjiang in years, and among the most ambitious given the high-profile target.
An attack in one of the eastern population centers is “something that the Chinese authorities have been worried about for a long time,” said University of Michigan expert Philip Potter, predicting tighter surveillance and scrutiny of Uighurs in eastern cities. “Once this threshold has been crossed, it is a difficult thing to constrain.”
Rozi Ura Imu, a 48-year-old trader in jade and other precious stones from the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, condemned the attack but said it didn’t justify the harsher treatment by authorities.
“I am also upset. They crashed a car, and we end up being harassed by police every day now, saying that we Xinjiang people are like that,” Rozi said, standing at the gate of the Panijayuan market, which has thousands of stalls featuring crafts from regions throughout China: rows of statues and furniture, bins of beads and trinkets, cases of books and scrolls.
Uighurs are a Turkic Central Asian people related to Uzbeks, Khazaks and other groups. With their slightly European features and heavy accents, most are immediately recognizable as distinct from China’s ethnic Han majority. The 9 million Uighurs now make up about 43 percent of the population in Xinjiang, a region more than twice the size of Texas where they used to dominate.
Many complain of strict government controls not seen in other parts of China, including a ban on religious observance by minors and injunctions against traditional male cultural gatherings called “meshreps.” Recent moves to mainly use Chinese in Xinjiang schools have raised fears of the further erosion of Uighur language and culture, as well as job losses for Uighur teachers.
Uighurs also say they’ve seen little benefit from the exploitation of Xinjiang’s natural resources while good jobs tend to flow to ethnic Han migrants.
Uighurs frequently say they’re made to feel like second-class citizens, facing difficulties obtaining passports or even traveling outside Xinjiang. Hotels and airlines are reported to have unofficial bans on catering to Uighurs, and many employers refuse to hire them.
“Hotels won’t take us and you can’t rent if your ID shows a Xinjiang residence. People look at us with a lot of prejudice,” said Yusuf Mahmati, 33, a fur trader plying his wares on a busy sidewalk opposite the Panijayuan market, a gathering place for traders from several regional ethnic groups.
The Beijing police statement said the five detained suspects had helped plan and execute the attack, and were caught 10 hours after it was carried out. It said they had been on the run and were tracked down with the help of police in Xinjiang and elsewhere. It didn’t say where they were captured, but said police had found jihadi flags and long knives inside their temporary lodgings.
“The initial understanding of the police is that the Oct. 28 incident is a case of a violent terrorist attack that was carefully planned, organized and plotted,” the statement said.
The overseas advocacy group World Uyghur Congress on Tuesday urged caution and expressed concerns that Beijing could use the incident to demonize Uighurs as a group.
Beijing-based Uighur economist Ilham Tohti urged the government to make public its findings if it indeed has evidence that Uighurs were involved in a terrorist attack. He said repression against Uighurs would only get harsher.
“Most certainly, this incident will worsen the situation for Uighurs,” Tohti said.
Tohti has faced frequent police harassment for his activism. He was placed under house arrest numerous times in the wake of deadly ethnic rioting in 2009 in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, that sparked a nationwide crackdown on Uighur activists.
That wave of violence, which left nearly 200 dead, most of them Han Chinese, had strong ethnic overtones, beginning with a protest over the killing of Uighur workers at a south China toy factory over false rumors of sexual assaults on Chinese women. China termed the bloodshed a terrorist attack planned by overseas Uighur rights advocates, and heavily increased its security presence in Xinjiang.
Chinese authorities rarely provide direct evidence to back up terrorism claims, and critics say ordinary crimes or cases of civil unrest are often labeled as organized acts of terrorism.
However, Xinjiang borders Afghanistan and unstable Central Asian states with militant Islamic groups, and Uighurs are believed to be among militants sheltering in Pakistan’s lawless northwestern region. Uighurs were also captured by U.S. forces following the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and 22 were held as enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. All but three have since been released and now reside in Albania, Bermuda and elsewhere.
China has largely been successful at limiting both the volume and effectiveness of domestic terrorist attacks, while containing them mainly to Xinjiang.
However, the Chinese government has warned that radicals were planning attacks outside of Xinjiang and launching strikes in China’s eastern population centers offers “easy access to soft, high-profile targets as well as an information and media environment that is increasingly ripe for terrorist exploitation,” Potter of the University of Michigan said.