On Wednesday a car pulled turned into the famous Wangfujing pedestrian shopping street in Beijing. When police officers pulled up to the car to cite a traffic violation, already roused to suspicion by the car’s out-of-town license plate, the people in the vehicle, apparently already doused in gasoline, set themselves on fire in an act of protest whose motives yet remain unclear.
When news of the act hit the press it triggered a frenzy of speculation as to who the protesters were and why they did it. The National People’s Congress is set to open next week and is often the target of protesters who come to Beijing to air their grievances. Prominently, the date of the protest was the Tibetan New Year, opening the possibility that the protesters were Tibetans expressing discontent with the situation in Tibet. The China Digital Times posted a summary of the various commentaries triggered by the event, along with some pictures, and clearly one can see that despite how sensational the protest itself was, actual information concerning the cause or the participants remained scarce.
The latest by Reuters says that the occupants of the vehicle were a family of Uyghurs, according to information disclosed by an unnamed source at the capital. The father and mother, aged 59 and 58 respectively, are being treated at a local hospital for burn injuries while the son, 28, is in police custody, uninjured.
The same source claims that the protest was directed at lawmakers and was over a housing dispute. What remains to be disclosed, then, is whether or not there is something uniquely “Uyghur” about the nature of the protest. Was the issue being protested a personal or non-ethnic issue that could’ve happened anywhere else in China, and the Uyghur identity of the protesters was just a coincidental and non-related fact? Or was ethnicity bound up into it all, as if, for example, the “housing issue” being protested was regarding an old Uyghur neighborhood being torn down to make way for a housing development? This distinction is vital, considering factors such as the annual report on human rights issued by the State Department which right off the bat slams the Chinese government for its treatment of minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet.
It’s interesting to keep in mind that this information came from a leak and that government organs have yet to put in a word on the ethnicity or motivations of the protesters. So far, Xinhua and the like have been pretty sparse with the details. That governmental organizations have refused to release any information about the identity or intent of the protesters seems to strongly imply that there is something worth hiding in the eyes of the authorities. In the meantime, we’ll just have to wait for Xinhua to make the next move, or for another helpful “source” to step up and offer a little more info.