Post-Tiananmen China crackdown 'will fuel Xinjiang unrest'

Festering discontent with China's governance of Xinjiang is on the rise and Beijing is intent on clamping down, analysts say, in a vicious cycle that will only spin faster after a fatal attack in Tiananmen Square.

Authorities say attacker Usmen Hasan and his wife and mother were carrying jihadist banners and machetes in the vehicle that they crashed into crowds outside the Forbidden City on Monday, before setting it alight and dying in the blaze.

China's security chief Meng Jianzhu said the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) were "behind-the-scenes supporters" of the incident, which has been dubbed "terrorism" by authorities.

But experts play down ETIM's capabilities and doubt that international militant Islam was a significant factor, given the lack of sophistication in the action -- which killed two tourists and injured 40 people -- and the absence of any claim of responsibility.

"What would one make of the three people in the van at Tiananmen on Monday?" asked Barry Sautman, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who has studied the far western region of Xinjiang which has a predominantly Muslim Uighur population.

"Are they a group? Well, they're three related people in a family. Do they have any attachment to any larger organisation? It's not entirely clear."

China's dominant Han majority made up only a small fraction of Xinjiang's population when the People's Republic was founded in 1949, but decades of migration have seen their proportion balloon to 38 percent, according to official figures.

Authorities often tout the fact that China's booming growth and affirmative action policies have lifted many Uighurs out of poverty.

But Han control much of the economy, while Uighurs complain of marginalisation, discrimination, and religious and cultural repression.

"Over the long term, these (restrictions) are being perceived as part of a Chinese strategy to dilute the ethnic identity of the non-Han population," said Michael Clarke, a professor at Sydney's Griffith University who has authored a book on China's integration policy in Xinjiang.

The tensions have led to a series of eruptions of violence over the past five years, with Beijing casting the unrest as the work of Islamic "terrorists" -- sometimes asserting links with international jihadists -- or "ethnic separatist forces" influenced by overseas-based Uighur activist groups.

Gardner Bovingdon, a professor of Central Asian studies at Indiana University and an expert on modern Xinjiang, noted that Beijing moved swiftly to control the narrative of events after the Tiananmen attack.

He likened the media scrubbing to an Internet and cell-phone blackout in the far-western region following huge inter-ethnic riots in summer 2009, in which more than 200 people were killed.

"It is telling that the police so quickly cordoned off the area and scrubbed the Web of pictures and blog posts the day of the crash," he said.

"Beijing wants to squelch information and control the story that ultimately emerges, to avoid a deeper look into why Xinjiang has been unstable for so long."

By crafting a narrative of the Tiananmen attack as an instance of growing religious extremism -- whether or not that is in fact the case -- authorities are able to turn attention away from the more-localised grievances many Uighurs have about Beijing's governance, Clarke said.

He was "sceptical" about ETIM's "exact nature", he added, and said that while there were links across Xinjiang's borders to Pakistan and Central Asia, they had been "exaggerated by the Chinese government".

"It's this perception that unrest in these regions is caused by external interference, if you will -- that seems to me to be a false judgment," he said.

"In fact, if you look at the empirical evidence... most of the unrest stems from the failings of Chinese governance in these regions."

Further crackdowns will probably only backfire, experts said, but predicted that they would be imposed nonetheless.

"History tells us that new administrations in Beijing, as (Chinese President) Xi Jinping's is, tend to be keen to demonstrate their strength early on in their tenure in order to solidify their grip on power," said Nicholas Dynon, a researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney.

"With the current government, we have seen this being played out not just in Xinjiang but across the board: from internet anti-rumour campaigns to anti-waste and thrift drives within the party itself," he added.

The motivation for the Tiananmen attack remained uncertain, he pointed out.

"Was this a protest against religious persecution, ethnic discrimination, policies of Han migration to Xinjiang, Chinese rule, or was it merely a private plight that had nothing at all to do with the broader tensions? Beijing will need to tread very carefully."