Bin Laden’s goons used box-cutters. The Black Panthers opted for an attache case. Uighurs, meanwhile, are content dealing with … crutches? So dictate the latest reports floating out of Xinjiang, offering an odd, somewhat facile account of broken crutches and a hijacking gone awry:
Chinese news organizations have quoted police officers and witnesses as saying that six men tried to hijack the airplane but were subdued by passengers and a group of policemen who happened to be on the plane. The news accounts said the men disassembled a crutch into metal rods and tried to use those to break into the cockpit.
The flight, a Tianjin Air journey heading from Hotan to Urumqi last week, apparently saw six Uighur men attempt to breach the cockpit before being subdued by fellow passengers. The flight returned to Hotan and saw all non-hijackers returned safely to the ground. The passengers, according to one blogger, recalled the lessons of United 93 and stifled their attackers in a manner befitting those perished at Shanksville. Meanwhile, the vice director of Xinjiang’s grain bureau — known only as Mr. Liu — allegedly did his part, stamping out an homemade explosive device. Lives were saved. The innocents on the plane survived. And the state, through Mr. Liu’s actions, stood ever-firm against Uighur extremism.
It was a story in the mold of, say, Richard Reid or Umar Abdulmutallab, and has become markedly familiar. Unfortunately, where others had previously seen fit to merely restrain Reid and Abdulmutallab, the Tianjin passengers proceeded to unleash a form of retributory justice on the assailants. Tying them up with belts, certain of the 92 passengers beat the potential hijackers — all in their mid-to-late-20s, all hailing from Kashgar — with attendant weapons, perhaps even turning the crutches against them in a fit of frontier justice.
By the time the plane touched down in Hotan, two of the men were beaten sufficiently enough to need hospital care. And it was there that, earlier this week, they died.
Suddenly, where we’d merely had an inauspicious case of violence — the attempted hijacking was potentially horrific, but not terribly unexpected — conspiratorial antennae have been tweaked. Dilxat Raxit, out of the German-based World Uyghur Congress, said that it wasn’t a hijacking attempt, but, rather, a seat dispute that resulted in an in-flight brawl. The pair of deaths came under police watch, much like Li Wangyang last month. And what would the Uighurs have to gain in hijacking a plane that was (likely) loaded with fellow Uighurs, anyway?
In a media landscape as clamped as China’s — in which even the relatively freed world of microblogging is slowly being clogged — a conspiracy can spiral up- and outward as quickly as the questions arise. In just one of the dozens of examples skulking about the internet, “Various sources claim [the two men] died under torture in an attempt to extract a confession of terrorism.” There is, of course, no way to back this up. There’s no way to even find the sources. And so the rumor floats, untethered, finding receptive ears for anyone believing in the Chinese bogeyman and Uighur rectitude. (Which, to those on the side of the Han, reeks of Uighur apologia.)
Raxit hinted at the ways the Uighurs would respond. “We warn China not to use this incident as another excuse for crackdown,” he wrote. Xinjiang’s Communist Party secretary, meanwhile, was quick to offer retaliation with the full force of the country’s “iron fists.” Said Zhang Chunxian, “We should leave terrorists no place to hide.” He called on those under his command to strike Xinjiang’s “three fronts”: terrorists, extremists, and separatists. He said nothing of investigation into the hijacking, and nothing on potential restitution for the families of the deceased.
And so while two of the other hijackers remain in the hospital out of self-mutilation, the situation in Xinjiang, once more, roils. It’s been three years the riots. It’s been one week since the earthquake. Perhaps the hijacking and the deaths aren’t sufficient for any spark — I can’t imagine these guys will be seen as Mohamed Bouazizi — but any exacerbation in Xinjiang is a potential moment. Any conflict threatens to boil across the New Frontier, just as it has so many times in the past. All this, as the country’s crutches, the things propping the nation and the people, are slowly, gratingly, hijacked.