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Tienanmen Square Car Crash Leads To Questions And Censorship



From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Police in Beijing are investigating the cause of a fiery car crash yesterday in the heart of the Chinese capital. A car plowed into a crowd of people near the gates at the north end of Tiananmen Square. It's not yet clear if this was an accident or an intentional attack. Five people died and 38 were injured.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Beijing. And Anthony, there were three people in the car. All died. But we're hearing reports that police are looking for two suspects from China's far west. What can you tell us about this?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: There's not a lot to go on, Robert. What happened was that last night what purported to be a police notice started circulating on the Internet and this notice said the police were looking for two men whose first names were both Yusuf, which is sort of like Yusuf. And apparently these men were from China's far west Xinjiang Province. And this notice was to hotels, telling them to be on the lookout for suspicious characters.

We have not had any definitive statement from state media, from any government organ. And as you can imagine, Uyghurs, who are the ethnic minority living in Xinjiang, are not happy that when there is something like this suspicion very quickly falls on them.

SIEGEL: Well, what is the significance of the site of this crash? What does the place look like?

KUHN: Well, the gate at Tiananmen is a national monument that was first built in 1420. It's the symbol of the nation, Robert. It's on the national emblem. And, of course, it's seen a lot of history, the 1989 pro-democracy protests, among others and its right near the leadership compound. So you could say it's the political heart of the nation. It's thronged by tourists every day and there's very heavy security. It's, you know, I've seen it get heavier and heavier, more and more railings, more plainclothesmen, more stopping and frisking of out-of-town looking tourists.

SIEGEL: We're talking about the heart of Beijing. One often sees Chinese police or soldiers - I don't know what they are - in uniform in that area. If this was an attack, how can an attack have cracked the security in such a central place?

KUHN: I think the thing to remember, Robert, is that there is a lot of manpower in the area, but there's not a lot of apparent firepower. You do not have security forces with assault rifles or submachine guns. You do not have concrete barriers or blast walls. You basically have a lot of plainclothesmen, some paramilitary police and some metal barriers, which could be pushed over. Also you could look at it this way, you know, there's a lot of heavy surveillance and police presence and that may have prevented larger protests or attacks in the area. We have not seen mass casualty attacks at what could be a very high value target.

SIEGEL: Anthony, how would you describe the way the Chinese government has handled this incident so far?

KUHN: Well, officials got to the scene very quickly and they cleaned it up within one hour. You couldn't tell anything had happened after an hour there. Also on the Internet, the government got out a very short statement very quickly. And after that any discussion of the matter was expunged - pictures, comments were all wiped off the Internet. So still, no explanation of whether this was an attack or a protest or an accident.

SIEGEL: OK. Anthony, thank you.

KUHN: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: NPR's Anthony Kuhn reporting from Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.