Why the Tiananmen Square Crash Is So Unnerving

China's largest public urban space is more than just the site of the famous student protests 24 years ago. It's also the symbol of the country—and the country's power.
People walk along the sidewalk of Chang'an Avenue as smoke raises in front of the main entrance of the Forbidden City at Tiananmen Square in Beijing October 28, 2013. (Reuters)

Earlier today, a jeep entered Beijing's Tiananmen Square and plowed through a crowd, before crashing and erupting in flames. The incident so far has killed five people (with many more injured), and led to the total evacuation of the square. As of this writing, the identity of the Jeep's driver is not known, though the state-run Global Times is reporting that the Beijing police has targeted two suspects, both from China's far-western Xinjiang region.  In an effort to stem the spread of information about the event, the Chinese government has censored news and micro-blog accounts and deleted user-sourced photographs of its aftermath.

This is a still-developing story with few concrete details, and I suspect it will be awhile—if ever—before we know exactly what happened. But it's worth mentioning why the setting of the incident—Tiananmen Square—is so significant.

To many Westerners, the words “Tiananmen Square” conjures up one incident: the Communist Party's massacre of protesters, which took place in the streets surrounding the square on June 4, 1989. But Tiananmen has served as the setting of many other important events in Chinese history. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China at the square, and less than two decades later he addressed hundreds of thousands of young “Red Guards” there during the height of the Cultural Revolution. In January 1976, many more Chinese people poured into Tiananmen Square in a massive, spontaneous memorial for Premier Zhou Enlai, who had died the day before. When the “Gang of Four,” the de facto rulers of China, cracked down on the outpouring of grief, the ensuing series of events led to the gang's arrest and brought the Cultural Revolution to an end.

The 1989 massacre was not the last important historical occurrence in the square. In 1999, plain-clothes policemen conducted a mass arrest of Falun Gong protesters there, putting an end to the spiritual movement's spread in China. And, just two years later, jubilant Chinese citizens poured into the square after Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Tiananmen Square stands in the exact center of Beijing, and the massive city radiates out in all directions from it. Adjacent to the square is Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party leadership compound, while to the right is the Great Hall of the People, where major political gatherings are held. Mao Zedong's mausoleum, where the embalmed body of the P.R.C.'s founder lies in state, sits in the back of the square, while the Forbidden City—for centuries the home of the Chinese imperial family and today a major tourist attraction—is across the street. Tiananmen, meaning “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” in Chinese, is considered a national symbol of China, and today's fire caused flames to come perilously close to the portrait of Chairman Mao, which has stood atop the gate for decades. The area around Tiananmen Square is the nexus of Chinese power; there is no other place in the country that matches its symbolic and actual importance.

These days, it is difficult for pedestrians to make a political statement in Tiananmen Square—the area is among the most heavily surveilled places in the world, and plainclothes police officers keep close watch on anyone behaving suspiciously. But Chang'an Avenue, running astride Tiananmen, is a major thoroughfare for automobiles, and a permanent, total shutdown of car traffic seems implausible.

Political violence is not unusual in China. Since 2009, over 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire, for instance, a phenomenon that has caused a lot of consternation for the Chinese government. But none of these self-immolations have occurred in the very center of “official China,” a stone's throw from where the Communist Party's top leaders live and work. If politics did indeed motivate today's incident, you can rest assured that the Chinese government will not hesitate to react strongly.  

Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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