The Chinese government has an astounding ability to act quickly and decisively when they want something or someone repressed, but an explosion last month at the country’s most politically significant site, Tiananmen square, proved impossible even for them to erase completely.
Not long after a four-wheel-drive packed with explosives detonated in the square, the supposed terrorists were identified. Those who assisted them were rounded up. Some sort of show trial and executions will likely follow.
The Communist Party’s line has been that the attacks were carried out by members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a radical Islamist group with links to al-Qaeda. Not long after the party made that accusation, a separate group, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), took credit in a video posted online.
Both groups hold themselves out as seeking to liberate the separatist Uighur community from the north-western region of Xinjiang province. The Uighurs are a Muslim ethnic minority who seek independence from Beijing for the region they call East Turkestan.
They continue to speak their own language and refuse to change their clocks to Beijing time. (The whole of China is under one time zone, despite the country spanning over 5,200km east to west — one of the many ways the country reinforces its "one China" dogma.)
What cannot be doubted is that it’s a story that fits the Communist Party’s needs rather well. On the whole the Han majority are, at best, ambivalent to the plight of the country’s ethnic minorities and, at worst, fiercely racist towards the people they see as inferior, responsible for stunting Chinese progress, and bringing disrepute to China on the international stage.
This sense of Han Chinese nationalism also tends to feed other disputes, like the current imbroglio over the South China sea. As Justin Ho Cheng Lun from the Australian National University's East Asia Forum wrote recently, when it comes to foreign policy issues, "if Chinese leaders do not cater to popular nationalist sentiment, the political regime itself could become the subject of criticism".
At home, it's clear that the government can execute Mongols, Tibetans and Uighurs with impunity, safe in the knowledge that it won’t lead to unrest in other parts of the country. That makes them the perfect scapegoats for the authoritarian leadership.
The situation in the Uighurs' region of Xinjiang has been incendiary for some time. It came to a head in June this year when 35 rioters were killed in clashes with the police and military.
The truth about the explosion, who was responsible and the nature of their grievances, may never be known. There are serious doubts about the validity of the government’s accusations given how actively the Uighurs are repressed.
The efficiency of the authorities in tracking down and eliciting confessions would be remarkable anywhere in the world, but in the bureaucratic mess that is China it is nothing short of miraculous.
By contrast, the commander of the Beijing troops ordered to fire on the Tiananmen protesters in 1989 refused, and was court martialed for doing so. The government brought in soldiers from Mongolia and other far flung reaches and kept them isolated and uninformed until they were required to shoot and kill innocent protesters on the streets of the nation’s capital.
The most recent Tiananmen attack was not an anomaly, however. On 6 November a bomb went off outside the Communist Party offices in Taiyuan, Shanxi. One person died and eight others were injured.
In July a lone disabled protester set off a bomb in Beijing airport to protest against the states abandonment of him after he was left paralysed as a result of a brutal beating at the hands of the city’s law enforcement officers in 2005.
It would be easy to diagnose these incidents as evidence of a rising sense of social violent unrest. That may be true, but there’s really no way of knowing; in the past, the Communist Party has made sure news of dissent has been contained.
What’s significant about these recent attacks is that they have tested the government’s ability to control the flow of information. The measures and restrictions that have proved effective for so long are slowly being eroded.
Facebook and Twitter may be blocked, but the Chinese micro-blogging equivalent, Weibo, has over 500 million accounts and the government understands the level of threat this poses to them. Photographs of the Tiananmen crash site were posted on Weibo as they happened and spread quickly among users.
The subsequent images shown by international news services were those that had been snapped by ordinary citizens on their smartphones. No wonder then that in 2011 the Communist Party blocked any news about the Arab Spring, a rebellion that relied heavily on social media as a means for organising and mobilising people.
Last month’s Third Plenum of the Communist Party’s Central Committee provided a fitting snapshot of the current state of affairs. The government understands the need to reconsider their once-effective methods of restraint and repression, but significant liberalisation was not up for consideration.
What resulted was a commitment to abolish the forced labour camps and an ambiguous plan for judicial reform. But without the required checks and balances in place it seems unlikely that Beijing has any real interest in ushering in an independent judiciary.
As China grows in power so too does the threat of another clash between rising nationalist sentiment, state power and the desire of many subjugated citizens for freedom. This could mean another massacre along the lines of Tiananmen Square 1989, something China can ill-afford. But one cannot help but feel that, unless some radical changes occur, the country is headed back down that dark path.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.