Asia-Pacific, Global Governance, Globalisation, Headlines, Human Rights

MEDIA-CHINA: News of Ethnic Strife Skirts Chinese Censors

BEIJING, Jul 15 2009 (IPS) - The story of ethnic strife engulfing China’s far-western province of Xinjiang may have been relegated to the inner pages of the country’s state-controlled newspapers, but this time, the government could barely suppress the outflow of information.

Unlike the Tibetan riots last year, when the media was initially told to suppress the story, the clashes between Han Chinese and Muslim Uyghurs that erupted in the provincial capital of Urumqi on July 5th, was widely reported.

In many ways, this is symbolic of the profound changes taking shape in this fast-developing society, which the communist mandarins can no longer fully control.

Taking cue from the protests in Iran, where the emergence of new media tools like Twitter, Facebook, and You Tube ensured the story is broadcast to the rest of the world, Beijing was eager to put its own version out as quickly as possible.

On July 7th, widely-read local newspapers like the Beijing Youth Daily and the Beijing News published pictures of burned cars, smashed buses and bloodied people in Urumqi. Accompanying reports from the state new agency, Xinhua, claimed the violence that erupted was “a pre-empted, organised violent crime. It is instigated and directed from abroad and carried out by outlaws in the country”.

Beijing has blamed Rebiya Kadeer – a female Muslim American émigré, as well as pro-independence Uyghur groups in exile in Washington, Munich and London for masterminding the revolt from afar.

Even the Southern Weekend – a liberal newspaper based in China’s free-wheeling south, fell in line with the mandated version of events. It devoted a full page to profiling Kadeer, describing her as “the Dalai Lama of Uyghur people”. It spent little effort on probing how more than a hundred people died in a matter of hours in a city swamped with paramilitary police or questioning the officially released number of Han Chinese and Muslim Uyghur victims.

Beijing insists that Uyghurs’ gripes are gripes for independence and has condemned their demands for religious freedom and genuine autonomy as separatist agitation. The Uyghurs – members of a Turkic-speaking group that is culturally, religiously and linguistically different from the Han Chinese — have long complained of the heavy-handed Chinese policies.

Li Wei, an expert on terrorism issues with the Chinese Institute for International relations told the Southern Weekend newspaper that Urumqi riots had the same goal as the Tibetan riots that erupted in the run up to the Beijing Olympics last August.

“This is a provocation by Rebiya aimed at sabotaging the 60th founding anniversary of the People’s Republic of China,” he said. “She has been plotting incessantly and she has been looking for a suitable fuse to fire up unrest in the autonomous region”.

Much of the media has attempted to convey a message of danger from “hostile” elements stirring trouble in the ethnic minority areas and has rallied the nation to stand together in the face of the “threat”. Photos of paramilitary police officers on TV and the newspapers have been interspersed with the coverage of state leaders visiting wounded people in the hospitals and calling for national unity.

But not all the media has lined up behind the official line of reporting. Some business newspapers – widely perceived as operating outside of sensitive topics as national sovereignty — have probed the reasons for the protests beyond the official sanctioned explanation of separatism.

The China Business Journal for instance, carried an investigation into the triggers for the protests and dared to suggest that widening income disparity between the ethnic Han majority and the Muslim Uyghur minority has played a part in the uprising.

Much alike Tibetans, the Uyghurs have found themselves on the fringes of Chinese economic miracle. Hoping to benefit from the economic reforms that Han Chinese spearheaded and introduced through the country, they have instead been margianlised as outsiders in their own homeland witnessing how resources and profits have flown to Han Chinese migrants.

The last census taken in Xinjiang showed that although the nearly 8.4 million Uyghurs are still a majority in their land (they stand at 42 percent of the total), the Han Chinese population has risen to 38 percent.

The Urumqi riots – some of the deadliest conflicts between the two ethnic groups in Xinjiang region since the Chinese communist troops arrived there 60 years ago — started with demands by local Uyghurs for the government to investigate the deaths of two Muslim migrant workers in the southern province of Guangdong.

Violence erupted when police began to disperse protesters, spreading across the capital city of 2.3 million people. The majority of them are now Han Chinese. Sympathy protests followed in the traditionally restive towns of Kashgar and Khotan but also in places as far away as Munich and Istanbul. The authorities claim some 184 people died in the riots, more than two-thirds of them Han Chinese.

While the China Business Journal’s reporting steered clear of questioning the official version of events, it traced the origins of the conflict to a government-sponsored poverty alleviation project. The migrant workers that died in a brawl in Shaoguan, Guangdong province, were part of a labour force export scheme aimed at reducing social tensions in the most remote parts of Xinjiang.

The two Muslim workers were among the 4,100 people from Shufu county under Kashgar city that were “exported” by local authorities to work as migrant labour in the manufacturing hubs of China’s east and south. According to the report, the project had transformed the remote county into a model “labour export” center, attracting some 8,000 recruits since 2008.

“In the poorest areas of China where resources are scarce, labour export is one of the most convenient ways for poverty alleviation,” said Chen Yaogao, social researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

While in most areas, migrant force recruitment is conducted by labour agencies or the companies themselves, in the case of Shufu scheme the recruitment was entirely driven by the government. Local authorities contacted manufacturers in Guangdong and in the eastern coast harbor of Tianjin to find placement for the labourers, and even dispatched local cooks to cater to their food needs.

While sounding positive on the government intention, the paper highlighted the problems of Muslim Uyghurs feeling “resentful” of the wealth and living standards of Han Chinese. The report spoke of the “fragility” of the labour export experiment in ethnic minority areas plagued by poverty.

Electronic media has been even more effective in raising public’s awareness about political and economic inequality between Han and non-Han., a Chinese-language website, had emerged as a cyber forum probing Beijing’s minority polices and questioning the wisdom of encouraging the migration of Han Chinese into Xinjiang. The internet forum, founded by Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, had argued that Beijing’s polices were in need of revision as they had put Uyghurs at disadvantage and alienated them.

After the riots as Beijing tried to silence the forum, the response by online activists was immediate. A lobby of more than 100 Chinese writers and intellectuals published a letter calling for the release of the website’s founder. Ilham Tohti was reported missing from his Beijing home this week and has apparently been detained.

The letter posted online on Monday urged Beijing to reflect on whether its own mistakes caused the unrest in Xinjiang and the anti-government riots last year in Lhasa and other Tibetan communities.

*Asia Media Forum (

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