Ethnic unrest in China

The fiery crash of a sports utility vehicle Monday in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the symbol of the Chinese Communist Party’s power and rule, must have shocked President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders. It killed not only the three occupants of the vehicle, which caught fire after plowing into a crowd of tourists, but also two bystanders. It also injured 40 others, including one Japanese. The police circulated a list of eight suspects, seven of them Uighurs, and reportedly arrested five suspects on Wednesday.

It is appears that behind the incident is Uighur anger at the government’s policy toward ethnic minorities, which the Uighurs regard as repressive. This incident, apparently a suicide attack, strongly suggests that social instability continues to exist despite China’s rapid economic development. Violent retaliation by the Chinese leadership against Uighurs would likely only make the situation worse. Beijing must instead consider how it can end the cycle of repression and terrorism that plagues China.

Tiananmen Square was the scene of a massive crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989. All the more shocking to Chinese leaders no doubt was that Monday’s incident happened as authorities were beefing up security measures ahead of a meeting of the party’s 200-member Central Committee on Nov. 9-12. The attack took place in front of the Tiananmen Gate, not far from the Zhongnanhai complex where many Chinese leaders live and work.

While China’s economy keeps growing, problems such as a gap between the rich and the poor, corruption, environmental pollution and discrimination against ethnic minorities loom large. The leadership under Mr. Xi are focusing on economic reform all the while stepping up repression against dissidents and minorities.

A large riot in July 2009 by Uighurs in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, resulted in the deaths of some 200 people and injuries to 1,700 others. Last April, shortly after Mr. Xi became president, 21 people were killed in a clash between an armed group and the police in Kashgar, and 35 others were killed in a clash in Turpan in June. In Tibetan areas, more than 100 people demanding freedom to practice their faith immolated themselves in and after 2009.

Han Chinese make up more than 90 percent of China’s population, yet the country also has 55 ethnic minority groups. Although the Chinese government has a minority appeasement policy, ethnic minorities complain of a Han monopoly on wealth, a lack of autonomy for ethnic minorities and inadequate protection of ethnic minorities’ cultures and religions.

To improve social stability, Mr. Xi and other leaders must change the government’s policies toward the country’s ethnic minorities. Beijing must engage in earnest dialogue with them and consider policy changes such as allowing them greater autonomy. They must keep in mind that despite China’s impressive economic growth, it will be unable to become a truly prosperous and harmonious country as long as ethnic unrest remains a problem.