Officials Tightly Control the Narrative Surrounding Tiananmen Square Vehicle Crash

November 15, 2013

In the wake of an SUV crash at Tiananmen Square in Beijing municipality on the afternoon of October 28, 2013, Chinese officials moved quickly to suppress news and debate about the incident by foreign media and Chinese Internet users, as well as promote an official narrative that emphasized themes of terrorism and religious extremism among Uyghurs. On October 28, an SUV crashed into a guardrail next to Tiananmen Square after plowing through a crowd of people, killing 2 people and injuring 40. The crash and subsequent fire also killed the occupants of the SUV, reported by Chinese state media to be Usmen Hasan, his mother Kuwanhan Reyim, and his wife Gulkiz Gini.

Foreign Reporters Curbed; Social Media Comments Censored

In the immediate aftermath of the SUV crash at Tiananmen Square in Beijing municipality on October 28, Chinese authorities detained a number of foreign and Hong Kong reporters who sought to cover the incident. According to the Washington Post (28 October 13), authorities briefly detained members of a BBC News team and two Agence France-Presse reporters. According to the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (29 October 13), security officials also detained a journalist or journalists working for Sky News. Duowei News (28 October 13) reported that officials also detained six Hong Kong reporters for about 15 minutes. Officials also reportedly blocked journalists from Asahi News and Reuters from traveling to the hometown, near Turpan city, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of one of the five people Beijing Public Security officials named as suspects in helping to carry out the October 28 crash (Asahi News, 31 October 13 and Reuters, 30 October 13).       

According to foreign media reports, including China Digital Times (28 October 13), South China Morning Post (30 October 13), and New York Times (28 October 13), authorities acted swiftly to delete unauthorized reports posted online on domestic news outlets and images and comments on social media platforms regarding the deadly crash. China Central Television (CCTV), China’s state-run national television station, also reportedly deleted a message it initially posted on its official microblog account discussing the crash (New York Times, 3 November 13). 

Management of Official News Narrative

According to Los Angeles Times (28 October 13), Chinese state-run television did not immediately broadcast news of the crash, which took place on the eve of the Third Plenum, a major policy planning meeting held in the nearby Great Hall of the People. The 7 p.m. news broadcast on October 28 had no mention of the incident, which was only reported later during the late evening news broadcast. China Digital Times reported on October 30, 2013, on censorship instructions issued by the Central Propaganda Department, stipulating that domestic news media must strictly adhere to “Xinhua News Agency wire copy” when reporting on the crash, must “not produce any other reports or commentary,” and must not place the relevant report on their front page or the home page of their Web site.

Xinhua reported on October 30, 2013, that the October 28 crash was a “carefully planned, organized, and premeditated violent terrorist attack.” An October 30, 2013, China Daily article emphasized that the crash represented the spread of “extremism,” and in particular “religious extremism,” outside of the XUAR. Other state-run media reports compared the crash to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States (Global Times, 31 October 13) and the April 2013 Boston marathon bombings (Xinhua, 7 November 13). According to an October 31, 2013, Xinhua report, reprinted in Phoenix Net, Meng Jianzhu, Secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee Political and Legal Affairs Commission (PLAC), stated that the Tiananmen crash was an attack orchestrated by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group designated by the U.S. Government as a terrorist organization.     

Uyghur Academic Ilham Tohti Threatened

Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, a professor at Minzu University in Beijing municipality and founder of the Web site Uyghur Online, provided interviews to foreign media, including Radio France Internationale (29 October 13),  New York Times (29 October 13), and Deutsche Welle (30 October 13), in which he questioned the official narrative regarding the Tiananmen crash and expressed fears for the impact it would have on Uyghurs in terms of repressive security measures and discrimination. According to New York Times (4 November 13), Tohti reported that plainclothes security agents in Beijing rammed his car on November 2, with his wife and two children inside, threatening him after he exited the car that they “wanted to kill [his] whole family,” and warning him not to speak with foreign reporters. (For more information on official harassment of Ilham Tohti, see Commission analysis here.)  

Other international observers and media have raised questions about the Chinese government’s version of events. In an October 31, 2013, New Yorker article, former China correspondent Evan Osnos discussed a pattern of a lack of transparency that has underlined official Chinese reporting of violent incidents involving Uyghurs in recent years. American scholars Scott Radnitz and Sean Roberts raised concerns about Chinese officials’ characterization of the crash as a sophisticated terrorist attack, emphasizing that issues of inequality and religious repression have contributed to instability in the XUAR and fueled Uyghur grievances (Foreign Policy, 11 November 13). The Wall Street Journal (8 November 13) contrasted the official response to the Tiananmen crash with the official response to a bombing that took place outside provincial Communist Party headquarters in Taiyuan, Shanxi on November 6. The Wall Street Journal report provided examples of Chinese officials and official media framing Uyghur acts of violence as terrorist in nature, and compared them to state media’s attribution of attacks carried out by Han Chinese citizens to social grievances.      

For more discussion of Chinese government efforts to control information in the wake of sensitive events, see Commission Analysis, Communist Party Controls Media Coverage of Yushu Earthquake. For more information on official controls over freedom of expression in events involving Uyghurs, see Commission Analysis, Internet Available in Xinjiang, But Controls Over Information Remain.   

For more information on conditions in the XUAR, see Section IV—Xinjiang in the CECC 2013 Annual Report.