Be Skeptical of the Official Story on the Tiananmen Car Crash

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Senior Research Analyst for East Asia

Last Monday, a jeep plowed through a group of pedestrians on Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square, killing at least five people and injuring dozens before going up in flames beneath a portrait of Mao Zedong. Chinese officials promptly took control of the narrative, claiming that the event was a premeditated attack by members of the Uighur ethnic group, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority from China’s northwest. Lest anyone suggest otherwise, the authorities arrested foreign journalists covering the scene and promptly censored discussions on Chinese social networks.

Uighur representatives in the United States are urging caution. Beijing has frequently used allegations of terrorism by Uighurs to justify more intense repression in their home region of Xinjiang. The opacity of the government’s handling of the latest incident also suggests that some incredulity is warranted.

Although many international media outlets have expressed modest skepticism, their stories carry headlines such as “China arrests five suspected Islamist militants over Tiananmen Square jeep ‘terrorist attack’” and Uighur Muslims in China arrested for ‘Online Jihad.’” Despite the strategic use of quotation marks, one can imagine how a casual reader would come away with the impression that the Uighurs are waging jihad in China.

This is problematic for a number of reasons.

Perhaps the driver of the jeep in Monday’s crash was indeed a Uighur Muslim, pushed to desperation by the suffocating cultural and religious restrictions placed on his community. Perhaps it was even someone with jihadist inclinations. But this would not be reflective of the broader Uighur population. Uighurs generally practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam, and many experts say Islamist militants are few and far between among them.

Moreover, China is home to one of the most robust media censorship systems in the world. This means that any information on such a sensitive issue that appears on state media has been tightly controlled and selected to convey a message that is convenient to the regime—in this case, that Uighurs are “terrorists” and that their harsh repression at the hands of the state is a necessity.

It is also important to note that the Chinese government’s definition of “terrorism” is much broader than is generally understood overseas. Uighurs have been given harsh sentences, on charges like “endangering state security” or “inciting separatism,” for actions as innocuous as granting a media interview to a Hong Kong–based news outlet.

But one should not be skeptical based solely on the regime’s mistreatment of Uighurs and its media controls. The fact is that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials have lied about these kinds of incidents before, with real human costs.

The fire on the square last Monday recalled another event: In January 2001, five individuals set themselves aflame in Tiananmen Square. Police immediately arrested a team of foreign reporters who were at the scene and confiscated their equipment. Within hours, Chinese authorities declared the self-immolators to be adherents of Falun Gong, a school of meditation practiced by millions of people that Beijing had been struggling to eliminate for almost two years.

State media presented the self-immolators as fanatics, broadcasting gruesome footage and using the event as proof of the “dangers” of Falun Gong. Months of relentless propaganda succeeded in turning public opinion against the group. Over the next year, the scale of imprisonment, torture, and even deaths of Falun Gong practitioners from abuse in custody increased dramatically.

The government’s story about the self-immolations was riddled with inconsistencies. These included the fact that Falun Gong’s teachings forbid violence and suicide, video footage of the immolators’ incorrect meditation postures, and an investigation by the Washington Post’s Philip Pan, who found no evidence that the woman who died on the square had ever practiced Falun Gong. Her neighbors said she was known as an emotionally troubled nightclub dancer.

These and other revelations have led some observers to the conclusion that the self-immolations were not an act of religious protest, but rather an elaborate hoax, staged by the Chinese government to justify human rights abuses against a nonviolent religious minority.

Despite these doubts, the official narrative seeped into foreign news reports. To this day, many uncritically cite as fact that the self-immolators were Falun Gong practitioners.

The CCP learned its lesson well, as is evident from its track record in handling subsequent incidents allegedly involving Uighurs. Just a few days before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a truck reportedly plowed into a group of paramilitary officers in the northwestern city of Kashgar, and the vehicle’s occupants emerged with machetes and attacked the injured men.

State-run media quickly labeled the incident a “terrorist attack” by “Uighur separatists.” Official accounts said at least 16 officers were killed. News outlets around the world carried headlines like “China on Olympic terror alert after border attack.”

But the following month, Edward Wong of the New York Times reported significant doubts surrounding the official narrative. Several foreign tourists who observed the incident said there were no terrorists, just Chinese police fighting one another. “It looked like they were military officers … and it looked like they were hitting other military people on the ground with machetes,” said one witness.

Disturbingly, this did not cause the Chinese authorities to reassess their version of events. In April 2009, Chinese state media reported the execution of two Uighur men for the attack.

Following an outbreak of ethnic violence in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, in 2009, the Chinese government again responded with a combination of censorship, propaganda, and repression. Internet access in the region was shut down for months, preventing information from being sent abroad. The blackout was accompanied by security sweeps and large-scale disappearances, including of Uighur teenagers, some of whom remain unaccounted for more than four years later.

Manipulated state media coverage promoted a one-sided version of the 2009 unrest, suggesting that the Uighur protests were uniformly violent and premeditated. State television repeatedly broadcast graphic images of conflict that reinforced fears among citizens from China’s ethnic Han majority. Since then, Uighurs have faced intensified religious restrictions, destruction of cultural sites, and heightened economic and social discrimination.

It may be some time before the world learns what really happened in Tiananmen Square last Monday. But so long as Chinese authorities refuse to allow independent investigations and censor unofficial accounts of the crash, observers should treat the official line with skepticism. Foreign media should be careful not to promote Beijing’s narrative, and instead dig deeper, as Pan and Wong did in the earlier cases.

After all, misrepresenting the incident could inflict real-world damage, reducing international support for innocent Uighurs at a time when they may need it most. Uighurs across China are already reporting intensified harassment, regardless of whether they had anything to do with last week’s crash. It is the obligation of journalists, especially those who enjoy the benefits of democracy and freedom of the press, to avoid giving any assistance to Chinese officials who would use this tragedy as a pretext to incite more hatred and inflict more suffering.

Screengrab courtesy Voice of America

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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