The World

What Was Behind Yesterday’s Deadly Tiananmen Square Crash?

A policeman stands on Chang’an avenue before Tiananmen in Beijing on Oct. 29, 2013, a day after a vehicle crashed in front of Tiananmen Gate.

Photo by Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Though it happened not far from where I’m currently staying and just a day after I visited the site myself, yesterday’s deadly and mysterious car crash in Tiananmen Square feels very far away, partly because many of the initial reports and photos were extremely hard to access online here.

Five people, including the three passengers in the car, a tourist from the Philippines, and another from Guangdong Province, were killed when an SUV crashed into crowds on the square, bursting into flames near Mao Zedong’s famous portrait at the entrance to the Forbidden City. The square, packed with visitors to the Forbidden City and Mao’s Mausoleum, was quickly evacuated, and authorities were initially slow to release information.

Today, however, the Global Times suggests there may be a connection between the crash and Xinjiang province, the site of frequent unrest on the part of the local Uighur population in recent years as well as harsh government crackdowns, including deadly riots that took dozens of lives last summer:

Late on Monday, the police sent a notice to hotels in Beijing, in which hotel management were asked to look out for “suspicious guests” that had visited hotels since October 1. The police also sought information on “suspicious vehicles.”

The police notice said that a “major case had taken place on Monday” and named two residents of Pishan county and Shanshan county of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as likely suspects. 

The police also described a light-colored SUV, and four license number plates, all starting with the regional character showing they were from Xinjiang, in the notice.

The Xinjiang connection is going to further stoke rumors, already circulating online, about whether this was a planned attack or a self-immolation. There are also some reports that the car was trailing a banner.

As it happens, some members of my group took notice yesterday of the fire extinguishers placed near the guards in front of the Forbidden City gate. These apparently are aimed at preventing self-immolations like those carried out by Falun Gong followers some years ago.

This would not be the first time Uighurs have set themselves on fire in the capital, though the use of the car as a weapon against a crowd is obviously a troubling new tactic. For what it’s worth, the police presence on the streets definitely seemed amped up today.

I’m currently in China with several other U.S. journalists on a reporting fellowship sponsored by the East-West Center and the Better Hong Kong Foundation.