Uighurs in China are fearful after Tiananmen Square attack

An ethnic Uighur arrives at a mosque in Beijing. Uighurs in the capital are fearful of losing their jobs or apartments because of the Tiananmen Square attack.
(Ed Jones / AFP/Getty Images)

BEIJING — At a restaurant with an arbor of green plastic grape leaves out front and a grill inside for skewers of roast lamb, police have been popping in regularly the last two days to check residency documents of ethnic Uighurs.

In the same neighborhood, a Uighur family who had moved into their apartment a few days ago were told to leave immediately, although they paid their rent a month in advance.

The midday attack this week at Tiananmen Square has made the Uighurs the least favored ethnic minority in Beijing for the moment. On Monday, a family of three Uighurs drove their sports utility vehicle onto a crowded sidewalk, killing two tourists and injuring 40, before setting the car on fire and killing themselves. Authorities have called it a “terrorist act” and described the perpetrators as Islamic militants.


“Customers are looking at us suspiciously. Police are looking at us suspiciously,” a 38-year-old Uighur restaurant manager in Beijing said Thursday as he served lunch.

The man, who gave only his first name, Ali, said police had been coming in regularly to check the identity cards of his staff, as well as any customers who appeared to be Uighurs. He said the situation was worse back in Xinjiang, the northwestern region of China that is home to most Uighurs.

“I called friends today in Urumqi [the Xinjiang capital], and they said police are coming by at 11 o’clock and 12 o’clock at night checking ID cards,” Ali said.

Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur economist who works with human rights advocates, said he was getting calls from Uighurs who feared losing jobs and apartments in Beijing because of Monday’s attack. They included the family who were evicted.

Tohti disputed China’s characterization of the attackers as Islamic militants. He noted that there had been many similar outbursts by members of the ethnic Han majority, such as a man who tried to blow himself up in the Beijing airport over the summer and a string of knife attacks against schoolchildren.

“Many Han Chinese resort to extreme action and harm innocent people as well to express their frustration to society,” Tohti said. “From the evidence that has been released about this family in the car, they were more like self-immolators who felt they had been wronged and wanted to release their anger.”

The driver has been identified as Usmen Hasan, who was accompanied by his 70-year-old mother and 30-year-old wife. They had with them knives, steel rods and canisters of gasoline, which they ignited after driving up to the enormous portrait of Mao Tse-tung that hangs over Tiananmen Square. State news media said they were identified as Islamic militants by a flag in the car.

Ming Pao, a Hong Kong-based newspaper that obtained photographs and identity cards of the three, reported that they were from Akto county, south of China’s westernmost city, Kashgar. The newspaper said there had been many arrests in the city for underground religious study.

State media on Wednesday condemned the attack at Tiananmen Square and demanded stiff punishment for alleged accomplices of the perpetrators. Five suspected accomplices were arrested early this week.

“Violent terrorist crime is the shared enemy of all humanity, the shared enemy of all ethnic groups in the country, and it must be severely punished under the law,” said a commentary in the Communist Party’s People’s Daily.

About 9 million Uighurs live in northwestern China, coexisting uneasily at times with Han Chinese. They frequently complain about institutionalized job discrimination and restrictions imposed by the Communist Party on practice of religion.

About 3,000 Uighurs live permanently in Beijing, many of them running restaurants, dealing in jade or doing trade, a holdover of their reputation as merchants on the Silk Road. Looking more European than Asian and speaking a Turkic language, the Uighurs tend to congregate around Ritan Park, an area also frequented by businesspeople from the former Soviet Union.

There is also a large floating population of Uighurs who peddle snacks or come to file petitions with the government, a distinctly Chinese tradition for addressing grievances.

In Beijing, Uighurs are often banned from renting hotel rooms. And Tohti said bus stations in Xinjiang have been forbidden in recent months from selling Uighurs bus tickets to Beijing if they are petitioners.

“It is always difficult for Uighurs in Beijing, but if there is something unusual that happens, then the police step up their vigilance,” said Ali, the restaurant manager.