The deadly car explosion that rocked Tiananmen Square this week raises awkward questions for the ruling elites in Beijing about their ability to maintain control over a country where dissent is forcefully suppressed. With five people dead and more than 30 injured, the world's attention again turns to the site of the 1989 uprising by pro-democracy demonstrators and its bloody suppression.
Given the symbolic importance of Tiananmen Square, it has been one of the most tightly policed places in China. Witnesses recount that this unprecedented attack was deliberate and did not appear to be the result of some sort of accident or unavoidable mechanical problem. The crash and subsequent explosion occurred just a few feet away from the iconic picture of Mao Zedong, which commemorates the proclamation by Mao in 1949 establishing the People's Republic of China.
A suicide attack so close to the heart of official Chinese power would send a clear message of intent both within the country and internationally.
The official Chinese response was rapidly and efficiently executed. Tiananmen Square was locked down. Media were excluded. And any video or posts uploaded to the Internet were soon removed. The site of the explosion was quickly cleaned, and the square soon was reopened to tourists in order to maintain — as much as possible — a sense of normalcy.
Beijing is keen to maintain maximum control over every aspect of how the story of the bombing is told and the conclusions that are to be drawn. Official media minimized coverage of the story. Signs of weakness or widespread panic could embolden others to conduct similar attacks.
The square — so near to the tightly guarded Zhongnanhai compound, where President Xi Jinping and other senior officials live and work — is typically subject to very heavy policing. The 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square is still commemorated each June across China, although because of the heavy-handed tactics used by Chinese police, any protests or demonstrations are limited and dispersed. More recently, security at the square has been increased even further, in response to Tibetan protesters who have been setting themselves on fire to protest Beijing's treatment of their homeland. However, even these extra precautions did not prove sufficient to withstand a direct attack involving a car bomb.
One theory circulating is that the people responsible were linked to the Uighur Muslim population in the western province of Xinjiang. Uighurs have been resorting to violence in order to counter Beijing's attempts to squelch their cultural and religious traditions. Beijing fears that separatist groups in the province are seeking independence from central rule and the establishment of an independent country, "East Turkestan."
Xinjiang is an autonomous region that has experienced repeated outbreaks of violence in recent years. In 2009, ethnic riots in its capital, Urumqi, resulted in approximately 200 deaths. Earlier this year, 16 Uighurs died in a fight with police in Xinjiang. Beijing has regularly attempted to link local dissent to international terrorist groups as a way of undermining its legitimacy.
Official reports now are indicating that police are searching for additional individuals with Uighur names and cars with Xinjiang license plates, adding credibility to claims that the crash was, in fact, a suicide attack. Importantly, the possibility of a general backlash among the Han ethnic majority against Uighurs is already being discussed.
As China comes to grips with declining growth and a rapidly growing list of internal problems, the biggest challenge facing its current generation of leaders is how to manage dissent. Chinese people, particularly those whose day-to-day lives have been improved by decades of eye-wateringly high growth rates, increasingly want both to voice their concerns and criticisms about the government and to see officials respond. Unfortunately, the Communist Party leadership that has so effectively steered the economy seems unable to loosen its grip on power, even just a small amount.
In Xinjiang, the result is the radicalization of young Uighurs who feel that violence is the only way to secure their cultural identity in the face of a Han-dominated, homogenizing central government. Across the rest of China, a cat-and-mouse game of sorts unfolds across social media outlets, such as the microblogging site Weibo, with eager individuals attempting to spread information and encourage debate, while official censors follow behind them, scrubbing away anything that calls into question, directly or indirectly, the continued legitimacy of the Communist Party.
This attack on Tiananmen Square raises important questions that the Communist leadership in Beijing needs to answer clearly and convincingly. Perhaps most importantly, though, these leaders must rebuild their credibility and, at the same time, demonstrate a willingness to permit greater dissent than has been tolerated in the past.
Timothy Spangler is a writer and commentator who divides his time between Los Angeles and London. His radio show, "The Bigger Picture with Timothy Spangler," airs every Sunday night from 10 p.m. to midnight Pacific time on KRLA AM 870. To find out more about Timothy Spangler and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.