Call Tiananmen Attack What It Was: Terrorism

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There is something profoundly disturbing about the way most Western media and Xinjiang scholars have reacted to the attack in Tiananmen Square last Monday. As has been widely reported, the attack left five people dead, two of whom were tourists, and 40 injured.

Shortly after the attack, in which a man with his wife and mother drove an SUV into a crowd of people and set it on fire, Chinese authorities identified the perpetrators as Uyghurs. Since then, Western experts have appeared in the media, attempting to shed some light on the tragic event.

On October 31, three days after the tragedy, Sean R. Roberts wrote a piece for CNN significantly headlined “Tiananmen crash: Terrorism or cry of desperation?” Roberts is one of the leading Western experts on Xinjiang, and author last year of an important report in which he casts serious doubts on the existence of the ETIM as a capable terrorist organization. In his CNN article, Roberts argues that given the lack of transparency and details we might never know what exactly happened on Monday, let alone prove that the attackers were tied to any global Muslim militant movement. To understand this “act of violence,” as Roberts calls it, the second part of the article moves into an analysis of Chinese policies in Xinjiang and the marginalization of the Uyghurs in what they perceive as their historical homeland. The question, eventually, is whether “Monday's alleged attack was a well-prepared terrorist act or a hastily assembled cry of desperation from a people on the extreme margins of the Chinese state's monstrous development machine.”

The same day, another Xinjiang scholar, David Tobin, offered a similar perspective from his blog in a post that was then republished by Beijingcream. The post shares the concerns about the lack of details provided by the Chinese authorities, and suggests that if we want to make sense of the attack then we need to understand how security works in Xinjiang. Once again, China’s restrictions on Uyghur freedom and rights are responsible for Uyghur discontent, a situation that could lead to attacks such as that in Tiananmen.

Both Roberts and Tobin offer very insightful analysis into the complex range of problems that are likely to be behind Monday’s attack. I have lived in Xinjiang and conducted extensive research in the region, and find myself in total agreement with most of what they are saying. So what is it then, that I find so disturbing?

What bothers me, in both analyses, is the facility with which the authors dismiss the attack itself. Paradoxically, as I was reading the pieces, I felt that they could have made the very same points without the attack even having taken place. What happened in Tiananmen, it seems assumed, is just another example of the repeated violence we have witnessed in recent years, ultimately rooted in Beijing’s disastrous policies in Xinjiang. But is this really the case? Isn’t Tiananmen a turning point?

What is hard to understand is why the attack in Tiananmen is rarely acknowledged as an act of terrorism. Granted, we don’t – and probably never will – have access to all the details, and yet I believe we have enough material to claim that the attack was clearly intended to be deadly. The place of the attack, moreover, certainly has major symbolic value as the political center of the PRC, but it is also packed with Chinese and foreign tourists at virtually all hours. It thus isn’t just politically charged, but also in the spotlight of international observers. I find it hard to believe that both these factors weren’t part of the attackers’ calculations.

Moreover, what generally makes terrorism so disturbing is the randomness of the victims. We are constantly reminded of this when something happens in Boston, London, Madrid or any other Western city. Media run stories on the victims, their backgrounds, and how they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why hasn’t this been the case with Monday’s attack in Beijing? I have lived in Beijing for years and I visited Tiananmen many times. This summer, for the first time, my parents visited China. I took them to Tiananmen, I’ve got a picture of them in the very same place where the two tourists died on Monday. I could have died, my parents could have died. My Beijing neighbor, my Chinese teacher, my best friend: all could have died in Monday’s attack. 

Why is it so difficult, then, to call the attack what it is: terrorism? Why do scholars and journalists (see, for instance the BBC and NYT) seem more concerned about the weakness of China’s claims that the ETIM was involved in Monday’s attack, rather than in the tragedy of the attack itself?

Once again, I agree with most analysts that China’s claims concerning Uyghur terrorism have been unclear at best. I understand that we will probably never know whether the main motivation behind the attack was religious, political or personal. I’m also quite sure that we will never be provided with proof of the attackers’ link with the ETIM. And yet, in contrast to my previous thinking, I’m now sure that what China experienced was a deliberate attack intended to kill innocent people and attract notice. In a word: terrorism. It is this certainty that makes the Tiananmen attack a significant turning point, and something that we should take into account when analyzing Beijing’s response to it. 

It is surely very important that scholars and journalists investigate and question the Chinese government’s accusations and discuss its policies in Xinjiang. It is also important, I believe, that they call things what they are. A good discussion about what happened in Tiananmen should begin by calling the attack what it really was: an act of terrorism.

Alessandro Rippa is a Ph.D. student in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. He recently concluded a year of ethnographic research on the Karakoram Highway between Xinjiang and Pakistan. You can follow Alessandro on Twitter @AlessandroRippa.

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