They stand furtively outside Beijing’s Panjiayuan Boutique Market, half a dozen men whose darker complexions mark them as different from the crowds passing by. It’s dusk. Inside the market’s gate hundreds of vendors sell a huge array of jewellery and figurines. The men are selling similar goods – a jade green bracelet, an ivory-coloured pendant, among them – but their items are hidden in satchels and pockets.
These men are Uighurs, members of a Muslim minority blamed by Chinese authorities for an explosion in Tiananmen Square last week, when an SUV burst into a ball of flame below the famed portrait of Mao Zedong. They, and other minority groups that make up a shadow population of migrants, are now feeling the heat of a new government crackdown.
For Chinese leaders, who have called the explosion a terrorist attack “carried out by religious extremists,” the bombing represents a frightening escalation in violence and has raised anxiety that more could follow as the Communist Party prepares for a major party plenum in Beijing this weekend. On Wednesday morning, a series of small explosions were set off outside the Shanxi Communist Party headquarters in Taiyuan, 400 kilometres southwest of Beijing, local media reported. Very little other information was immediately available.
For members of other minority groups, including ethnic Tibetans, the crackdown on Uighurs heightens fears that China is using the Tiananmen incident to further punish those already on the fringes of society – even if that punishment may stir up more of the resentment it seeks to quell.
Five people died in the explosion – including the three Uighurs who state media said were inside the SUV – and 40 were injured. The reaction from official China was swift, with the arrest of five Uighurs allegedly connected to the attack. Guo Jinlong, the Communist Party chief in Beijing, then also ordered the city to “keep a closer eye on migrant people,” “crack down on violations of laws and regulations” and “build capacity for intelligence-gathering,” state media said.
The explosion – which happened at a spot that marks the geographic heart of China’s central power structure – came after years of violence involving Uighurs. Many of them feel oppressed by the majority Han Chinese and have staged riots and occasionally attacked police in Xinjiang, the northwestern province that is home to most of the Uighur population. Chinese authorities in turn have conducted sweeping rounds of reprisals in which thousands of people were arrested and several Uighurs executed.
At the Panjiayuan market, the days since the bombing have been miserable, the Uighur vendors say. Urban management officers – the para-police chengguan who are much loathed in China – came by and smashed more than $400 of their inventory, said several of them, who were afraid to provide their names. A motorcycle loaded with roughly $6,000 worth of jewellery was stolen. (In Xinjiang, the average annual disposable income among urban residents is a little more than $2,500.)
The men said they live in fear, as people around them are quietly rounded up by state forces.
In Beijing, the number of those detained is now approaching 100, according to Alim Seytoff, the Washington-based spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress. In one place in Xinjiang, Mr. Seytoff said, ethnically dominant Han Chinese “were given whistles they can blow to call Chinese police in the event they see suspicious Uighurs around them. … This makes all Uighurs a suspect and [subject to] a form of collective punishment.”
In a different corner of the capital, a neighbourhood once jammed with Uighur barbershops, bookstores and DVD shops now has just a pair of restaurants left. Uighurs in Beijing numbered in the tens of thousands in the 1990s. Today, roughly 3,000 to 3,500 remain, said Ilham Tohti, a Beijing university professor who has become the most vocal spokesman for China’s Uighurs. Even in calmer times, they would face document checks once or twice a week.
“The Uighurs are getting more and more edgy,” says Mr. Tohti, himself Uighur. His willingness to speak to the foreign press on the issue has earned him persistent and obvious surveillance. He said he is often followed by a pair of cars. Last weekend, he said, plainclothes security agents rammed his car, with his two young children in the back seat. The agents told him they were trying to intimidate him in hopes he would stop speaking to foreign press, he said, adding, “I was worried they were going to be kidnapped or taken away.” When the agents told him they were prepared to kill him, he shouted out their words to a gathering crowd so others would know the threats he faced.
Mr. Tohti said he has heard from Uighurs in Beijing whose landlords suddenly gave them three days to evacuate long-held apartments after the Tiananmen bombing. Wealthy Uighur businessmen have faced middle-of-the-night ID checks, too, he says.
Xinjiang is rich in energy and strategically located next to Central Asian states whose natural resources China also covets. It also has empty space, a key commodity in the world’s most populous country. But many of those virtues have benefited outside Chinese who have moved to Xinjiang. Uighurs now make up less than half the population there, as China moves to speed development of the region, whose growth has remained in the double-digits as the rest of the country slows. China has boasted that its efforts have raised living standards and wages.
But following violence that broke out in 2008 and subsequent rounds of police shootings and detentions, the Uighur population has grown increasingly restive as it suffers hiring discriminatory hiring practices and religious and cultural repression. In schools, for example, students are actively taught to abandon their parents’ Muslim faith, while the Uighur language is being shunted aside, said Sean Roberts, an Uighur expert at George Washington University.
Prof. Roberts has watched his e-mail box fill with death threats, after Chinese state media loudly criticized a column he wrote for CNN suggesting that the crude instruments used in the Tiananmen bombing – jerry cans and knives – did not have the hallmarks of a sophisticated terrorist attack.
Could the attack, he asked in the column, not be “a hastily assembled cry of desperation from a people on the extreme margins of the Chinese state’s monstrous development machine?”
In Beijing, meanwhile, many Uighurs feel powerless against the forces marshaling against them. Speaking to foreign journalists is dangerous enough. But, as one of the jade sellers said: “We are scared. They are police. We are only peasants.”