Is Tiananmen attack an indication of China’s political volatility?

Tiananmen attack (credit: Reuters)

On Sunday, October 27, a car crashed into a crowd and exploded at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, right underneath the symbolic portrait of Mao Zedong. The attack killed five people and injured 38.

Following allegations that the attack was caused by suspects from China’s Xinjiang region, security measures have been tightened in the region. Police in Xinjiang are reportedly visiting “sensitive religious families,” and inspections that were officially only carried out during big holidays and on important dates are now carried out daily.

A provincial spokesperson, Hou Hanmin, told the BBC “that the recent terrorist attack is related to Xinjiang and religious extremism poses [a] serious threat to our society, and it jeopardises our country’s stability”. In response, China acted immediately, replacing the top army general in the region. Peng Yong was replaced in his position on the party’s regional standing committee.

China’s Xinjiang region has a total of 9 million Turkic Muslim Uyghurs and borders Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgystan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Xinjiang’s Uyghurs have recently become a minority in the region with more and more Han Chinese moving there. Tensions are rapidly rising in the region between the ethnic groups, with this attack following a range of other violent incidents in Xinjiang earlier this year.

Beijing blames the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement as well as overseas sources for fuelling, and even funding, the violence, as China’s top newspaper reported that “uncultured youth who have been misled by religious extremists is a main source of unrest.” They blame extremists for distorting Islamic teachings. However, Uyghur representatives blame economic marginalisation as well as cultural and religious oppression for the anger and violence, although the government insists that it does not oppress these basic freedoms.

The attack carries a major political message. Tiananmen Square has been the site of many political events, being the city’s main site for the display of political power, whether from the emperors, the Guomindang Party, or the Communist Party.

It is also the site where Communist Party members frequently hold important meetings – the latest attack occurring only weeks before the Communist Party began the third plenum of the 18th Party Congress. This congress aims to get unveil new reforms, as well as officially marking the beginning of President Xi Jinping’s time, while planning China’s direction for the next decade.

The Tiananmen attack is not the only act of terrorism in China over the last few weeks. On Wednesday the 6th of November the provincial Communist Party Headquarters in Shanxi province was rocked by a series of explosions. In these attacks, one person was killed, and 8 were injured.

Analysis of the current situation in China demonstrates a high likelihood that protests and political instability will continue to be a problem, as its rise to power and international dominance has caused many problems at home.

Unrest in areas with large ethnic minority populations is only a small aspect of this, as China has also been dealing with other issues caused by rapid economic growth. For example,  the growing gap between the rich and the poor has led to land ownership issues, environmental issues, and corruption scandals, and has turned many of these issues into protests on a scale larger than seen before in China.

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Categories: Pacific Asia, Security

Author:Margaux Schreurs

Margaux is a graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science with an MSc China in Comparative Perspective with a focus on a comparison between North Korea and China. Having grown up in Singapore, she travels widely in Asia and has spent extended amounts of time in China and Vietnam, and speaks both Chinese and Vietnamese. She has a BA Development Studies and Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies with a regional focus on East and Southeast Asia, and focuses mainly on these regions as a freelance writer. As a recipient of the Chinese Government Scholarship, she is studying Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University, in preparation for further academic research in China.

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