Before the day ended, five suspects had been arrested on suspicion of involvement in Monday’s attack, which a police statement described as carefully planned terrorism. Police also said knives, iron rods, gasoline and a flag with religious slogans were found in the vehicle used in the suicide attack.
“They (police) come to search us every day. We don’t know why. Our IDs are checked every day, and we don’t know what is happening,” said Ali Rozi, 28, a Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) trader at the sprawling Panijayuan market.
“We have trouble every day, but we haven’t done anything,” said Rozi, who is from Kashghar, the capital of Xinjiang province where most Uighurs live.
Militants from the Muslim Uighur community have been fighting a low-intensity insurgency against Chinese rule in Xinjiang for years.
Recent clashes, including an attack on a police station, have left at least 56 people dead this year. The government typically calls the incidents terrorist attacks.
The police scrutiny of the Uighurs in Beijing highlights the years of discrimination that has fueled Uighur demands for independence for their northwestern homeland of Xinjiang. Many Uighurs say they face routine discrimination, irksome restrictions on their culture and Muslim religion, and economic disenfranchisement that has left them largely poor even as China’s economy booms.
In Monday’s incident, a sports utility vehicle barreled through crowds and burst into flames near the portrait of Mao Zedong on Tiananmen Gate. Three of the car’s occupants and two bystanders were killed, and dozens were injured in the strike at the capital’s political heart, where China’s Communist Party leaders live and work.
A list of as many as 10 suspects—all but one of them believed to be Uighur—was distributed to hotels in a bid for information.
If the Tiananmen Square incident proves to be the handiwork of Uighurs, it would be the first such attack outside the region in recent history, and among the most ambitious given the high-profile target.
“I am also upset. They crashed a car, and we end up being harassed by police every day now, saying that we Xinjiang people are like that,” said Rozi Ura Imu, a 48-year-old trader in jade and other precious stones from the ancient Silk Road city of Kashghar.
The Panijayuan market has thousands of stalls featuring crafts from regions throughout China: rows of statues and furniture, bins of beads and trinkets, cases of books and scrolls.
Uighurs are a Turkic Central Asian people related to Uzbeks, Khazaks and other groups. With their slightly European features and heavy accents, most are immediately recognizable as distinct from China’s ethnic Han majority.
Many complain of strict government controls not seen in other parts of China, including a ban on religious observance by minors and injunctions against traditional male cultural gatherings called meshreps. Recent moves to mainly use Chinese in Xinjiang schools have raised fears of the further erosion of Uighur language and culture, as well as job losses for Uighur teachers.
Uighurs also say they’ve seen little benefit from the exploitation of Xinjiang’s natural resources while good jobs tend to flow to migrants from China’s ethnic Han majority.
Uighurs frequently say they’re made to feel like second-class citizens, facing difficulties obtaining passports or even traveling outside Xinjiang. Hotels and airlines are reported to have floating unofficial bans on catering to Uighurs, and many employers refuse to hire them.
“Hotels won’t take us and you can’t rent if your ID shows a Xinjiang residence. People look at us with a lot of prejudice,” said Yusuf Mahmati, 33, a fur trader plying his wares on a busy sidewalk opposite the Panijayuan market, a gathering place for traders from several regional ethnic groups.
Uighur activists say they fear Uighurs could face even more discrimination following this week’s attack and urged the government to conduct a transparent investigation.
The overseas advocacy group World Uyghur Congress on Tuesday urged caution and expressed concerns that Beijing could use the incident to demonize Uighurs as a group.
Beijing-based Uighur economist Ilham Tohti urged the government to make public its findings if it indeed has evidence that Uighurs were involved in a terrorist attack.
“I wish they will promptly announce the identities of the deceased, and all relevant information. If the government has concluded this is a terrorist attack, then please tell us what is the plot behind it,” Tohti said.
Tohti has faced frequent police harassment for his activism. He was placed under house arrest numerous times in the wake of deadly ethnic rioting in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, in 2009 that sparked a nationwide crackdown on Uighur activists.
The Urumqi violence, which left nearly 200 dead, most of them Han, had strong ethnic overtones, beginning with a protest over the killing of Uighur workers at a south China toy factory over false rumors of sexual assaults on Chinese women. China termed the bloodshed a terrorist attack planned by overseas-based Uighur rights advocates and heavily stepped up its security presence in Xinjiang.
Chinese authorities rarely provide direct evidence to back up terrorism claims, and critics say ordinary crimes or cases of civil unrest are often labeled as organized acts of terror.
However, Xinjiang borders Afghanistan and unstable Central Asian states with militant Islamic groups, and Uighurs are believed to be among militants sheltering in Pakistan’s lawless northwestern region.
China has largely been successful at limiting both the volume and effectiveness of domestic terrorist attacks, while containing them mainly to Xinjiang, said Philip Potter, an expert on Xinjiang and security at the University of Michigan.
However, the Chinese government has warned that radicals were planning attacks outside of Xinjiang.
Should they become capable of attacking in China’s eastern population centers “they would have easy access to soft, high-profile targets as well as an information and media environment that is increasingly ripe for terrorist exploitation,” Potter said.