HONG KONG — On Monday, Beijing joined a list of illustrious world capitals with an unenviable distinction. Like Washington, London, and Madrid before it, the city was, according to official Chinese reports, hit by a 21st-century terrorist attack.
Around noon, an SUV allegedly carrying three people from China's far-western region of Xinjiang plowed into tourists at China's heavily-guarded Tiananmen Square and burst into flames, killing five. Police say the attack was masterminded by Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic minority that has bristled against government restrictions on their language and culture.
Occurring a week before a hugely important gathering of top officials for the Chinese Communist Party's Third Plenum, the attack has set Beijing on edge. Police are heavily scrutinizing Uyghur vendors in the city, and claim to have discovered a "jihad flag" in the suspects' vehicle.
But serious and deadly as the attack was, experts say that the worst mistake Beijing could make would be to overreact.
"The Chinese government would do well not to panic and think that stepping up the level of repression is the best way to deal with incidents of this kind," says Barry Sautman, an expert on Chinese ethnic policies at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "The [best] way to deal with it is to expand autonomy in Xinjiang, first of all by lifting the curbs that have been placed on religious practices, and to ensure that Uyghurs play a larger role in the governance in Xinjiang."
Tensions have been running high in Xinjiang over the last year, with several incidents of violence between Uyghurs and local police. Yet experts say the separatist movement remains small and isolated. China's increasingly cordial relations with Central Asian neighbors have undermined potential foreign government support for Uyghur independence. And as of yet, global jihadi fighters have declined to join the Uyghur cause.
"We are not looking at something like an intifada," says Chung Chien Peng of Lingnan University in Hong Kong. "Other Muslims see [Uyghur independence] basically as a separatist issue. … The separatists are serious to the extent that they kill people — particularly if you are a policeman or a soldier — but are they strong enough to incite some kind of rebellion? To hold onto an area? No."
Rebiya Kadeer, an influential Uyghur businesswoman and activist based in Washington, has repeatedly said that there is "absolutely no organized terrorist threat" in Xinjiang, which activists call East Turkestan.
The danger, then, is that increasing restrictions on Uyghurs will only stoke further resentment and radicalization. Earlier this month, more than 100 people were arrested in Xinjiang for allegedly promoting jihad online.
As it is, relations between the majority Han Chinese and Uyghurs are at a dangerous low. Uyghurs argue that they are discriminated against in the economy and the government because of prejudices that cast them as fanatical, and untrustworthy. The Han, in turn, believe Uyghurs are the beneficiaries of unfair ethnic policies that prefer minorities in university admissions. In Xinjiang's cities, the two groups mingle little, and live in informally segregated neighborhoods.
While only time will tell what how Beijing formally responds to Monday's incident, there's little doubt that in the short run it will only make things worse for Uyghurs in China, regardless of the attackers' motives.
"I think the main effect will be that life is going to be harder for Uyghurs," says Sautman. "It's already the case that taxi drivers will not stop to pick up riders that look Uyghur. Hotel owners shoo away Uyghurs who want to stay in their hotels. It may be even harder now for Uyghurs to be hired by companies in the Han areas of China. So I wouldn't be surprised if in the end the effect of this is worse for the Uyghurs than it is for anybody else."