When a blazing SUV rammed traffic cordons and ran over sightseers at the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing two weeks ago, killing five and injuring 40, media outlets reached for their usual suspects. Both Chinese and international commentators were quick to frame the suicide attack on the symbolic epicenter of China within the context of long-running ethnic tensions in the country’s peripheral Xinjiang region.
Chinese state-controlled media reported the incident as an act of terrorism, claiming that the East Turkistan Independence Movement (ETIM) – a group Beijing lists as an international terrorist organization – was behind the attack. Despite blaming ETIM for the incident, China’s top security official, Meng Jianzhu offered no details of the allegations against the group.
Fast-forward one week, and the November 6 bombing of Communist Party headquarters in the Shanxi province capital of Taiyuan has further heightened sensitivities just days out from the Party’s third plenum in Beijing. With no hint of jihadist involvement for authorities to point the finger at, this attack appears to be the latest in a spate of terror attacks emanating from well within China’s heartlands and far from its restive borders.
Crimes of Desperation and Retaliation
On July 27, 2013, just three months prior to the Tiananmen SUV and Taiyuan incidents, the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily interviewed Wu Boxin, a professor at the Chinese People's Public Security University and renowned criminal psychologist, on “individual terrorism.”
In this interview, Wu raised concerns over the increase in individual suicide attacks in China, drawing distinctions between individual or “lone wolf” terrorism (geren kongbuzhuyi) and what he refers to as “individual suicidal terror crime” (geti zishashi kongbu fanzui). The former, he asserted, is part of something organized and often motivated by matters of religion or belief, whereas the latter is non-organized and motivated by personal issues.
Exploring examples of individual suicidal terror crime, Wu cites two well-known 2013 incidents. The first involved itinerant worker Chen Shuizong, who set himself on fire in a public bus in the coastal city of Xiamen in June, killing a staggering 47 commuters and injuring 34. The second featured frustrated petitioner Ji Zhongxing, who in July, having been left paralyzed as the alleged result of a bashing by over-zealous security guards, detonated a home-made bomb in Beijing Airport’s Terminal 3, causing injuries only to himself.
These follow a string of such incidents throughout China in recent years. In May 2012, a woman protesting the forced seizure of her family home, walked up to a local government office in rural Yunnan province and blew herself up, leaving four people dead and 16 injured. In May 2011, 52 year-old Qian Mingqi, who had unsuccessfully sought redress for the demolition of his house due to highway construction, allegedly detonated bombs simultaneously in thee government buildings in Fuzhou, killing himself and at least two others and injuring at least seven. And the list goes on.
Citing Freud, Wu blames cumulative emotional catharsis – or an explosion of pent-up frustrations and emotions – for much of this violence. Most of these attacks have targeted China’s legal system or bureaucracy, perpetrated out of desperation by victims of the corruption and arbitrariness of China’s law courts and local officials.
Professor Wu points to a society out of balance due to the unprecedented social changes wrought by over three decades of Communist Party-led economic reform. His solution? Increase punishments for corruption, resolve the “thorny issue of petitions,” increase the number of lawyers and judges so that individuals can access the right to a private attorney, and stamp out the “I am the law” mentality so pervasive throughout officialdom.
This is vexed territory for Beijing, which has struggled in recent years to redress issues of growing disparities in wealth and opportunity and to tackle social resentment relating to such issues as environmental problems, corruption and forced evictions, gangster activity and personal disputes.
Public Enemies and Folk Heroes
Despite popular condemnation, a seemingly contradictory feature common to these “suicidal terror crimes” is the unprecedented level of public sympathy their alleged perpetrators have received in Chinese social media. It is evident that while netizens are troubled by the violence, many are nevertheless welcoming of the attention it is drawing to systemic judicial and bureaucratic problems. Some even cast the perpetrators as victims of the system.
Writing for The Atlantic, Fei Wang quotes a microblog post by Shen Yang, a professor at Wuhan University, as representative of such sentiment. The perpetrator of the Xiamen bus inferno cannot be forgiven, states Shen, but neither can “the bureaucratic system and certain public servants that did not provide sufficient support for underprivileged groups of citizens.
In many of these cases, popular concerns have extended to the opaque processes followed by authorities in identifying perpetrators. The identity of the female who is thought to have carried out the Qiaojia bombing is still unknown, with the public refuting authorities’ claims that the bomber was a male named Zhao Dengyong who had no known dispute with the government. In the Xiamen incident, there are veiled suggestions that a note that police claimed was left by the alleged perpetrator in his apartment never actually existed.
On the one hand, authorities are having to ensure that public expectations of swift and thorough investigation are met, yet on the other they are needing to draw negative opinion away from government and towards the alleged perpetrators of these suicidal terror crimes.
Returning to the Tiananmen SUV incident, we find an investigation hell-bent on concluding that this was no cathartic response to long-term neglect or injustice at the hands of officialdom. It was, states the Beijing Police, a “rigorously planned, organized, premeditated, violent terrorist attack.” It was, at the very least – to use Wu Boxin’s definition – a “lone wolf” terrorist attack aimed at China’s political heart.
If it were framed any other way, it would no longer be a crime blamed on Islamist extremism but one attributable to the same systemic issues that are fuelling China’s deadly wave of suicidal terror crimes. Ironically, it is these issues that represent the greater threat to the security of the Chinese state.
Nicholas Dynon is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University and is coordinator of the Line 21 project.