China’s Media “Openness” in East Turkestan

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December 16, 2009

By Amy Reger

As President Obama emphasized the benefits of the free flow of information at a town hall meeting during a visit to Shanghai last month, around 20 million citizens of China living in East Turkestan, a region comprising one-sixth of China’s territory, remained submerged in an ongoing Internet blackout which was implemented by government officials hours after protests started on July 5, 2009 in the regional capital of Urumchi. More than five months have now passed since the screens of East Turkestan’s netizens went dark(1), bringing many businesses to a halt and preventing an online discourse about the peaceful protests, violence and mass detentions that rocked the region beginning July 5.

A report published in October by the group Human Rights Watch that raises concerns about large numbers of detentions, which it aptly calls “enforced disappearances”, of Uyghurs in East Turkestan represents growing international recognition of Chinese government disregard for due process of law, in the wake of July 5. Far from justifying acts of violence carried out by Uyghurs on Han Chinese residents of the city, the international community has resoundingly condemned the violence perpetrated by all sides in Urumchi, including violence carried out by military and security forces and retaliatory acts committed by Han Chinese against Uyghurs.

Human rights organizations and governments worldwide have expressed concern over a lack of transparency and fairness with regard to the trials that have taken place so far in July 5 cases, the executions of the nine men that were reported on November 9, and the death sentences that have been handed down to a number of defendants. Since July 5, overseas human rights groups and others have also underlined the legitimate social and political grievances that led Uyghurs to protest in Urumchi, at first peacefully, with some carrying the flag of the People’s Republic of China. Many observers have stressed the necessity for the Chinese government to examine these grievances before it is able to achieve real peace and stability for everyone living in East Turkestan. Human rights organizations have called upon China to address underlying issues such as severe unemployment, income disparities, religious repression, the eradication of the Uyghur language, and the forcible transfer of Uyghur women and children to eastern China. This call has been issued with the argument that mediating these problems and providing a forum for Uyghurs to peacefully express their concerns will lead to a more stable and productive society throughout the region.

While the Chinese government has not been successful in the international arena in portraying the protests and violence of July 5 as an act of terrorism organized by hostile outside forces (i.e. Uyghur leader and World Uyghur Congress president Rebiya Kadeer), it would seem that Chinese officials have been incredibly adept at promoting an image of increased transparency in terms of freedom for the international reporters who flocked to Urumchi in July 2009 and thereafter. Much has been made of the difference in China’s reception of foreign reporters post-July 5 in Urumchi as compared to its complete lockdown on Tibet following the unrest there in March 2008. As an example, in a recent in the East Asia Forum, author Mike West states the following: “China’s openness this time round should be regarded as a step in the right direction by western commentators.” However, one might wonder at the ability of an authoritarian regime to render itself magically transparent in a year’s time. Cynical though it may be, evidence points to the more likely scenario of China simply learning how to manage and control the information coming out of East Turkestan while maintaining a façade that appeals to the western media. By taking the initiative in managing reporters’ inquiries in Urumchi, in contrast to its ban on international media in Lhasa in 2008, China was able to exploit an opportunity to define reality and take on the appearance of credibility.

If China’s relative openness to journalists in Urumchi were more than just a skillful manipulation of the international media, it would be consistent with its newfound openness to welcome United Nations special mechanisms, as Human Rights Watch recommends in its report. While it has yet to be seen whether or not Chinese leaders will take such an action, China’s track record in terms of welcoming international bodies to assess its performance or to investigate rights conditions, particularly in the aftermath of unrest, is abysmal. An official with the CCP Central Committee, when asked recently by a German reporter why China would not invite international figures to investigate the March 2008 unrest in Lhasa, indicated that this would constitute interference in China’s “internal affairs”, which China would never allow.

In addition to a cyber-blackout, Chinese officials’ clampdown on the flow of information in and out of East Turkestan can be seen in their continued blockage of international phone calls in and out of the region, and their restrictions on online Uyghur forums and social networking sites not based in East Turkestan. These restraints on the access to information on the part of China’s citizens display not openness or transparency, but a need to manage and control news and communication not coming from the government. Moreover, the information blackout in East Turkestan likely fomented paranoia and hysteria among the populace in Urumchi as it struggled with unsubstantiated rumors of hundreds of syringe attacks carried out by Uyghurs (not to mention that the government itself perpetuated these rumors, through reports that the syringe attacks were committed by terrorists).

In late September, despite the continuing Internet lockdown in the region, lawmakers in East Turkestan banned Internet users from discussing separatism online. The ironically titled “Information Promotion Bill” appears aimed at stymieing e-mails, web postings and other forms of online communication that authorities deem threatening. The bill not only has implications for netizens wishing to share video and footage of events that took place on July 5 and subsequent days, but it broadens the scope with which government authorities can prevent or punish dissenting Uyghur views.

All accredited foreign journalists arriving in East Turkestan in July were provided with the only Internet access in the entire region, but were required to be accompanied by government minders. As pointed out by Human Rights Watch, “those who sought information beyond what the government was willing to share were stopped, and, in some cases, detained and escorted out of the region.” HRW’s report notes that a number of foreign journalists were detained when conducting reporting that apparently met the disapproval of authorities. Among these were journalists who sought to report on the situation in the southwestern city of Kashgar in July, but who were summarily kicked out of the city. Hong Kong reporters were reportedly beaten by paramilitary police in their quest to report on Han Chinese protests in Urumchi in September.

The observations of a veteran BBC reporter who was allowed to visit Kashgar and Urumchi more recently reflect the degree to which the Chinese government has been able to manage Western journalists’ perceptions. In his report “A Tale of Two Cities Under Siege,” BBC world affairs editor John Simpson echoes Chinese government propaganda with his warnings of “fundamentalist Uyghur imams” in Kashgar.

It is unfortunate that Simpson’s assertions- including unqualified official figures regarding death tolls from the July unrest- were passed off as unquestioned truth, without offering any of the widely available independent accounts casting doubt on the official version of either casualty figures or claims of “Uyghur terrorism”.

Uyghur imams, all of whom are required to preach according to “patriotic doctrine”, would be hard-pressed to spread religious extremism, as Simpson’s report suggests. Perhaps the official line about Kashgar being a “fundamentalist hotbed” is a convenient way to justify restrictions on international reporting in Kashgar- representative of the broader way in which the Chinese government uses the “Uyghur terrorism” label to justify its iron-fisted policies in the region. It is certainly a convenient excuse for security authorities to prevent reporting on such issues as the ongoing destruction of Kashgar’s Old City- an ancient center of Uyghur traditional culture that previously housed more than 200,000 Uyghur residents. Uyghurs were not given a voice in the demolition of the Old City, which began in February 2009 and which has likely accelerated in the post-July 5 clampdown.

Simpson and his BBC crew videotaped a Uyghur woman who apparently stated that 198 Chinese people died on July 5, and that around 10 Uyghurs had been killed in revenge attacks. Reporters should be commended for seeking out independent points of view on the subjects they are investigating- but it is unclear just how independent a Uyghur resident of Urumchi can be when she is interviewed by a foreign television crew that is being followed around by carloads of security personnel. Uyghurs interviewed by foreign reporters have been known to “disappear” after providing information that is not in line with the government portrayal of the situation in East Turkestan, as happened with Dilkex Tiliwaldi in the city of Ghulja in 2004 after a PBS Frontline journalist interviewed him, without anyone else present, about government repression of Uyghurs.

The BBC is far from alone in its parroting of official government figures without qualification. Reports in the western media have increasingly cited the official tolls regarding casualty figures in both Urumchi and in Shaoguan, where a deadly attack on Uyghur workers at a factory on June 26, 2009 is widely viewed as having triggered the July 5 protest in Urumchi. Not only did many reports fail to mention the existence of accounts which cast doubt on official casualty figures or assertions of violence against Uyghurs (such as here and here for Urumchi, and here and here for Shaoguan), many reports simply stated, for instance, that “197 people were killed, and 1,600 were injured” in Urumchi, and that “two Uyghur men died in a brawl between Uyghur and Han” in Shaoguan.

One does not have to look far for these accounts that are at odds with Chinese officials’ version of events. Uyghur rights groups are one important source that should be considered when journalists report on the situation in East Turkestan. And while journalistic integrity necessitates a skeptical look at all points of view, reporters should at the very least apply the same degree of skepticism to Chinese government figures as they do to Uyghur claims- instead of disregarding Uyghur voices. However, the media appears happy to recycle any hard numbers that are put in front of them, perhaps in their quest to meet the deadlines required by a 24-hour news cycle. Hard numbers are very attractive, because they provide a veneer of accuracy and authenticity to an account of complicated events. Unfortunately, they also preempt further investigation and consideration of sources that do not put forth numbers because they cannot do so — due to the Chinese government’s tight grip on its population and control over the flow of information. This monopoly on access allows Chinese officials to dismiss the claims of Uyghurs and human rights groups as groundless “rumors”- just as it did in response to Human Rights Watch, immediately following the release of its report on “enforced disappearances”.

The world’s media outlets would likely refrain from citing, sans caveat, such official pronouncements as the August 2008 news that the applications of all 77 would-be Olympic protestors had either been “amicably withdrawn” or suspended due to unfulfilled administrative requirements. In the case of the Uyghurs, however, it appears that Chinese leaders should feel proud of themselves for having successfully, if undeservedly, promoted some aspects of their propaganda through the state-run press.

1) Recent reports from within East Turkestan, including one from this Western blogger who used an unidentified method to post online, indicate that Internet users are able to access official news websites and a very limited scope of other Internet content hosted within East Turkestan, but e-mail, Skype, and instant messaging remain inaccessible. Officials have not indicated when normal Internet access will be restored.