Are We Ready to face the Truth of the Urumqi Riots?

Roland Soong - Blogger of “EastSouthWestNorth”

A discussion of the media coverage of the Urumqi riots requires first and foremost a summary of the events. The title of this essay refers to “riots” in the plural because this was not a single incident. There were many incidents occurring in at various times in various places around the city of Urumqi on that night. Here are the generally accepted facts.

In the early afternoon of July 5, Uighur university students gathered in Urumqi and marched through the streets. They were protesting government inaction in an earlier incident in which Uighur workers were assaulted by Han workers in a toy factory in the city of Shaoguan, Guangdong province, which is several thousand kilometres away.

At some point, this particular protest march was dispersed by the police under circumstances that are still unclear (such as the degree of force used). In any case, it is certain that riots broke out in various locations around Urumqi at various times later that evening. The perpetrators were likely not the same university students in the march earlier that day. The Chinese government characterized it as a night of assault, looting, robbery and arson.

On the next day and thereafter, there was relative calm in Urumqi, because the police presented a massive show of force.

Many other related things happened afterwards (such as the Han counterdemonstrators looking for revenge; the three machete-wielding Uighurs who were shot by the police outside a mosque; the documentary on World Uighur Congress president Rebiya Kadeer at the Melbourne Film Festival leading to the withdrawal of six Chinese films; etc). But these were all side-shows compared to the main event on July 5.

Restraints on Reporting

So how were the so-called July 5 2009 Urumqi riots covered by the media? In particular, it might be of interest to make a comparison with the March 14 2008 Lhasa riots.

As a practical matter, we have to assess what the media can realistically do. If the Urumqi riots took place on a single night, then unless the media outlets already have personnel on location in Urumqi, they will be too late for live coverage. On March 14 2008, James Miles of The Economist happened to be in Lhasa on assignment and therefore he was the only western reporter to provide first-person reporting from the scene.

But on July 5, 2009, there were no western reporters in Urumqi. News about trouble in Urumqi came first over Twitter (and the Chinese equivalents such as Fanfou), where the short reports from local Urumqi Internet users indicated that there was big trouble. Uploaded photos showed fires raging across the city that night. However, these fragmented reports did not provide the “big picture.” Confusion was the rule of the day.

How might the western (including Hong Kong) media go about gathering news? Apart from calling the Urumqi government information office, they can only use private sources on the ground (such as the American teacher Adam Grode in Urumqi).

Therefore, all media reporting on the next day was either going to be based upon CCTV/Xinhua, or Internet hearsay, or people who were conveniently available but not necessarily wellinformed. The next best thing to do was to book the earliest flight out the next morning to Urumqi and find out for yourself. Indeed many media reporters did just that.

In the case of the Lhasa incident, reporters were not allowed to go there at first. In the case of the Urumqi incident, most reporters were allowed to go there. The exceptions included the Apple Daily reporter who was turned back at the Urumqi airport by order of government officials. Once there, reporters were allowed in principle to roam about on their own, but they were warned that they do so at their own peril. On July 7, a group tour was organized to visit various places in Urumqi under escort by the security forces.

Did the government exaggerate the potential dangers to media reporters in order to inhibit coverage? On July 7, Melissa K. Chan of Al Jazeera TV wrote on Twitter: “It is dangerous to film around Han Chinese if you have blonde hair and white skin. They get angry” and followed by “Equally bad if you're a journalist who is Hanlooking in Uighur neighbourhoods. We all feel kind of stuck.”

How did this come about? The Urumqi riots were an ethnic conflict between Hans and Uighurs. Therefore, the ethnic identity of a media reporter became an issue.

Nationality is at stake 

This identity crisis may be the result of the fallout over the media coverage of the March 14 2008 Lhasa riots. At the time, Chinese citizens began to pay close attention to western media coverage and some of them were not pleased by what they saw. For example, they spotted that a photo on the CNN website of a Chinese military truck convoy apparently had the rock-throwing rioters deliberately cropped out. So this led to the creation of a mass campaign exemplified by the website and the slogan: “Don't be too CNN” to mean “Don't ignore the truth” when it comes to media reporting.

For the July 5 2009 Urumqi riots, the most egregious example of media mistake was a photo caption in the London Evening Standard: “Blood and defiance: two women comfort each other after being attacked by police.” The photo was a screen capture from a CCTV video of two bloodied Han women who had just escaped into the safety of police protection after a beating by Uighur rioters. Those two women were subsequently re-interviewed and expressed their extra hurt at the London Evening Standard slipup.

Should this have created such a big stink? On one hand, it was an indefensible mistake made by an editor who decided to “interpret” the photo on his own initiative and belief. This was just unacceptable journalistic practice, and the London Evening Standard managing director David Willis admitted it as such. On the other hand, this was just one out of thousands of western media reports and it was the exception rather than the rule. It should not taint ALL western media coverage. It was being turned into an issue in order to apply pressure on all western media to watch themselves, but that is not necessarily a bad thing if the goal is the quest for truth.

The other side of the identity crisis relates to Chinese-looking reporter trying to interview Uighurs. The Wen Wei Po reporter noted: Our reporter noticed that when the Chinese reporters asked questions in Chinese (putonghua), the Uighurs would say in Chinese that they didn't understand. But when they faced the cameras of the foreign reporters, they would immediately cry and complain in fluent Chinese.

IT Channels Blocked

As for the role of the Internet, it was shortlived. For the first few hours, a lot of fragmented reports were posted on the Internet in Xinjiang websites and outside, as well as the microblogging services such as Twitter, Facebook and Fanfou. Shortly afterwards, all mentions of Xinjiang were banned at the mainland Chinese forums. Twitter and Facebook are now blocked and Fanfou is out of service. Chinese Internet users even engaged in “tomb-digging” through making forum posts about old Xinjiang stories in order to use the comment section to post updates, but that practice was also stopped. Telephone and Internet services were cut off in Xinjiang shortly afterwards and nothing came out other than officially sanctioned communications (to which no comments were allowed either).

The July 5 2009 Urumqi riots presented a huge problem for media coverage. This was a case in which many things occurred at various places in Urumqi at various times on a single day. The media could not be everywhere when things happened. When they showed up later, they cannot reconstruct everything just by interviewing a few people.

So the media reporters interviewed assault victims recovering in hospitals, each telling what happened to him or her. They interviewed the families of missing persons about their travails to locate their loved ones in morgues or hospitals. They interviewed the families of those who were arrested by security forces about the impossibility of finding information. But the sum total of all these interviews still contained huge gaps. What happened on July 5 when a peaceful street march by university students turned into deadly ethnic riots? Were the riots pre-planned and coordinated? If so, what were the objectives? Why were the authorities so slow in reacting such that so many fatalities resulted? Many, many questions remain.

Could these questions be answered? Can a fuller picture of the Urumqi riots be presented? It is possible but it won't be, because of the real and imagined consequences. The Heisenberg principle in quantum physics asserts that the act of observation will alter the phenomenon being observed. This is what is operating here.

The Unbearable Truth?

In reviewing the Xinhua/CCTV coverage, it is quite clear that their reporters had plenty more photos and videos than shown so far. But they chose not to show them. In volatile places such as Lhasa and Urumqi, there has to be plenty of closecircuit surveillance cameras. In Hangzhou, the surveillance cameras have been able to reconstruct what happened to two highly controversial traffic incidents. At a minimum, the Urumqi tapes could tell us how the student demonstration on July 5 was “dispersed.” Furthermore, they could even tell us what happened in the backstreet alleys where many of the killings took place. However, no such information has been made available so far.

In a way, this may be understandable. Given the limited amount of information released so far, there was already a backlash from the Han people. On July 7 roving bands of Han people went around Urumqi with knives and steel poles looking for revenge against any sighted Uighurs. They had to be dispersed by tear gas. A full release of all the information could lead to ethnic riots all over China directed against Uighurs who have nothing whatsoever to do with the Urumqi riots.

So this leaves us with the usual question: So you want to know the truth, but can you handle the truth? In the United States, the government decided that the world could not deal with the release of the rest of the Abu Ghraib prison torture photos/videos. In China, are we certain that the people can deal with the truth of the Urumqi riots? And if a media outlet can actually gain access to all those photos and videos, would it publish them in the name of truth and face the consequences?