For members of China’s ethnic Uygur minority in Beijing, police harassment is a way of life. That pressure has only intensified after this week’s deadly vehicle attack at Tiananmen Square in which Uygurs are the prime suspects.
“They (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 Uygur trader who gathered with others at the dusty outdoor Panijayuan curio market in Beijing on Wednesday.
“We have trouble every day, but we haven’t done anything,” said Rozi, who is from Kashghar, the capital of Xinjiang province where most Uygurs live.
Uygur militants have been fighting a low-intensity insurgency against Chinese rule in Xinjiang, for years. Recent clashes, including an attack on a police station, have left at least 56 people dead this year. The government typically calls the incidents terrorist attacks.
The police scrutiny of the Uygurs in Beijing highlights the years of discrimination that has fuelled an insurgency by radical Uygurs seeking independence for their northwestern homeland of Xinjiang. Many Uygurs 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.
Monday’s incident, in which a sports utility vehicle barrelled through crowds and burst into flames near the portrait of Mao Zedong on Tiananmen Gate, hasn’t been officially labelled as terrorism. Beijing police have said only that they are investigating the attack, which killed the car’s three occupants and two bystanders and injured dozens in a strike at the capital’s political heart, where China’s Communist Party leaders live and work.
However, a list of as many as 10 suspects – all but one of them believed to be Uygur – has been distributed to hotels in a bid for information.
If the Tiananmen Square incident proves to be the handiwork of Uygurs, it would be the first such attack outside the region in recent history, and among the most ambitious given the high-profile target.
“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,” said Rozi Ura Imu, a 48-year-old trader in jade and other precious stones from the ancient Silk Road city of Kashghar.
Uygurs are a Turkic Central Asian people related to Uzbeks, Khazaks and other groups. With their slightly European features and heavy accents, most are immediately recognisable as distinct from China’s ethnic Han majority.
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 Uygur language and culture, as well as job losses for Uygur teachers.
Uygurs also say they’ve seen little benefit from the exploitation of Xinjiang’s natural resources while good jobs tend to flow to migrants from China’s ethnic Han majority.
Uygurs frequently say they’re made to feel like second-class citizens, facing difficulties obtaining passports or even travelling outside Xinjiang. Hotels and airlines are reported to have floating unofficial bans on catering to Uygurs, 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.
Uygur activists say they fear Uygurs could face even more discrimination following this week’s attack and urged the government to conduct a transparent investigation.
The overseas advocacy group World Uyghur Congress on Tuesday urged caution and expressed concerns that Beijing could use the incident to demonise Uygurs as a group.
Beijing-based Uygur economist Ilham Tohti urged the government to make public its findings if it indeed has evidence that Uygurs were involved in a terrorist attack.
“I wish they will promptly announce the identities of the deceased, and all relevant information. If the government has concluded this is a terrorist attack, then please tell us what is the plot behind it,” 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 Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, in 2009 that sparked a nationwide crackdown on Uygur activists.
The Urumqi violence that left nearly 200 dead, most of them Han, had strong ethnic overtones, beginning with a protest over the killing of Uygur workers at a south China toy factory over false rumours of sexual assaults on Chinese women. China termed the bloodshed a terrorist attack planned by overseas-based Uygur rights advocates and heavily stepped up 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 labelled as organised acts of terror.
However, Xinjiang borders Afghanistan and unstable Central Asian states with militant Islamic groups, and Uygurs are believed to be among militants sheltering in Pakistan’s lawless northwestern region.
Police haven’t commented on the investigation into Monday’s incident, and state media reports spoke only of the condition of the injured, including three Filipino citizens and one Japanese man. A Filipino woman and Chinese man were among the five killed, along with the three people in the vehicle.
China has largely been successful at limiting both the volume and effectiveness of domestic terrorist attacks, while containing them mainly to Xinjiang, said Philip Potter, an expert on Xinjiang and security at the University of Michigan.
However, the Chinese government has warned that radicals were planning attacks outside of Xinjiang.
Should they become capable of attacking in China’s eastern population centres “they would have easy access to soft, high-profile targets as well as an information and media environment that is increasingly ripe for terrorist exploitation,” Potter said.