China’s web censors would like people to believe that nothing out of the ordinary happened at Tiananmen Square on Monday around noon, although eyewitnesses and the media had it otherwise.
An SUV plowed into a crowd in Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square and then crashed and burst into flames, killing two pedestrians and the three occupants of the vehicle and injuring 38 others, police and the media said.
Tiananmen Square, the vast public space in Beijing’s heart, is so politically sensitive that it took mere moments after a car crashed into the square for the plainclothes police who stalk the square around-the-clock to completely clear the space and erect large cloth barriers to keep out prying eyes, said the Washington Post.
Web censors flew into action, deleting and blocking online discussion of an incident that would have been major news in almost any other country. Even Western photo wires, perhaps unsure of how to read the highly unusual crash, initially tagged their photos “CHINA-UNREST-ACCIDENT-TIANANMEN.”
Tiananmen Square, China’s most politically sensitive landmark, was the scene of the 1989 pro-democracy protests which were ended by a military crackdown.
By all accounts, the cause or possible motive for the crash remained unclear. One foreign tourist interviewed by the Reuters news agency, who declined to give her name, reported hearing an explosion before seeing the smoke. Images posted on social media sites showed the vehicle engulfed in flames, and a thick plume of black smoke rising into the air.
Hundreds of posts about the incident surfaced on social media sites in China, but were quickly deleted by censors, according to FreeWeibo.com, a website that tracks such activity. The unusual nature of the incident, and the way the vehicle had been driven nearly 500 yards along the sidewalk, injuring and scattering pedestrians, quickly led to speculation that the vehicle was used in a deliberate attack.
Photos posted online before they were scrubbed showed the vehicle ablaze beside the historic bridges that lead visitors under the famous portrait of Chairman Mao and into the Forbidden City, the former residence of China’s emperors.
One of the few Chinese newspapers attempting to report on the incident, the liberal Southern Metropolis Daily, interviewed witnesses who described the carnage, but the newspaper’s online report was later deleted. Stories from mainstream media sources like the business magazine Caijing and newsmagazine China Weekly were also removed.
The official Xinhua News Agency did, however, post a short blurb, saying only that “three people in the vehicle were killed, along with tourists from the Philippines and Guangdong province.”
There were some suggestions that police were looking at suspects from the Uighur community, Muslims from the northwest of China, reported the Los Angeles Times. A purported police notice put out Monday, apparently after the incident, advised Beijing hotel owners to look out for a 25-year-old and a 42-year-old man from the towns of Pichan and Lukchun in Xinjiang, said the Times.
The Chinese government appeared embarrassed by the apparent lapse in security at the heart of the city. There was no mention of the incident on the main 7 p.m. evening news, which led with a report on the 11th meeting of the All China Women’s Federation.
While censorship instructions, issued to the media by government authorities, have not yet been leaked and distributed online, it is almost guaranteed that they would read something like this: “Concerning the case of personal injury which occurred today at Tiananmen Square, the media must report according to information issued by authoritative departments. Do not independently investigate, and do not speculate on the issue.”
A traffic warden surnamed Chen, who works close to the Tiananmen Gate told CNN: “I was shocked when I heard the news from colleagues. I thought this must be the safest place in China.”
Ray Kwong is a China commentator. He writes on China for Forbes. He is also a China business development strategist and marketing consultant.
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