So, you are getting ready for your biggest party in years -- all dressed up, getting the house in order, cleaning up the cutlery, putting a shine to everything around. You have called in the guests, some of whom are coming, some you have had to call despite knowing they won't turn up, and others who are still not sure how to deal with the new fellow knocking to join the big league. Like a good host, you are watching out to make sure the street is clean, the area around is nice, safe and inviting. And then boom! The expected but unhoped-for happens. How do you go about salvaging the party? That is the question the Communist Party of China is struggling with as it rushes to counter the Tianjin blast of 12 August.
To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Chinese victory in the War of Resistance against Japan and Fascist powers, the Party is organizing a big military parade in Beijing on 3 September. As happens in China, factories around the capital have been ordered shut from early August till the end of the event, promising 'blue skies' in a city that has just regained its position as the most polluted in the world. Security has been stepped-up -- to the extent that parcels and mail packets without clearly identified details of senders and recipients are not allowed to and from Beijing. The military has been on high alert, under the newly installed regional military commander who is a confidant of Party chief Xi Jinping.
With everything seemingly in place, an unexplained explosion in Tianjin, a mere 160 km from the capital, threatened to ruin the Party's party. With over 114 dead so far, the needle of suspicion has been squarely pointed in the direction of a chemicals warehouse. Which would have been understandable, but for the fact that the man appointed to investigate the incident was no local official, or even someone at the Centre responsible for industrial safety. Beijing, in an immediate measure, named the Public Security Minister, Guo Shengkun to look at matters! Clearly, someone in the leadership compound in Beijing was concerned about the veracity of the chemicals-warehouse theory. There was, in Beijing's estimation, more than meets the eye.
In these fraught times, when Beijing will host not just the 3 September military parade, but also the World Athletics Championships from 22 to 30 August, and perhaps the sixth Tibet Work Conference later in September, the people and guests needed to be reassured. They need to be told that the blast that killed over a hundred was just a case of corruption gone wrong -- at such a sensitive time, no one can, and should, utter the Uyghur word.
While Uyghurs are terrorists who are to be criticized all through the year, let there not be any suggestion in the media of even the remote possibility that they might have been involved in the Tianjin blast. Let us not highlight, for example, that Tianjin has a colony of Uyghurs, has had it for many years. This shall remain the secret of the Party, away from the eyes of the world. For acknowledging an Uyghur role in the blast means the muscular policies of Xi Jinping have failed, despite a strike-hard campaign that has been on in the restive Xinjiang province in the north west of China.
It is this sleight of hand that is behind the seemingly confused response from the local authorities. Their hand had been stayed from investigating too closely -- the Centre must have a look first, decide what is true, and even more importantly, reach a conclusion on what shall be the 'disseminated truth'. And gaining a consensus on this 'disseminated truth' has taken over a week -- the Mayor of Tianjin, the man who should have been at the forefront of all efforts, made his formal appearance only on 19 August, a full week after the incident. Weibo chatter on China's version of Twitter spoke of Uyghurs, but traces of such posts were cleared post-haste -- we don't want unauthorized thoughts proliferating cyberspace, especially as we are drafting a draconian cyber-security law.
As if this was not enough, another bomb went off, this time in far off Bangkok. Sadly, the world beyond the borders could not be controlled as that within could. So there were stories about how this was a retaliation for Thailand having sent back 109 Uyghurs to China a month ago. How the temple, the site of the blast, was frequented by Chinese nationals, and thus an attractive target for the Uyghurs to show their disgruntlement with both China and Thailand over the deportations. So plausible is this scenario, and cutting so close to the bone, that the Chinese Embassy in Thailand felt it necessary to counter these thoughts. Not with the certitude of someone who knows, but the fudging of one who would rather prefer smoke and mirrors. The Embassy, disingenuously, insists that there is no Uygur involvement in the incident, while also stressing that results of Thai investigations need to be awaited.
The problem for China in all this is that having played up the Uyghur threat for months, it is now faced with the situation where it is natural to link the intense blast in Tianjin to them, as well as the less-intensive Bangkok explosion. Deny as it does, Beijing knows within the Party and government that its demonization of the Uyghurs has come back to haunt it. Hide as it does, it must face up to the fact that the suppression of Uyghurs has been behind these explosions, whatever the Party propagandists say.
Saving the Party, it seems, is more important for China than saving the party. Covering up the facts of the explosion in Tianjin carries within it the seeds of further action by Uyghurs -- Beijing is providing enough opportunities. And let us not forget, 1 October 2015 marks the 60th anniversary of the setting up of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region by China -- another attractive occasion for those straining for freedom.
The writer works for EP Today, a monthly news magazine from Brussels, Belgium.