Xinjiang: Blind spots and unresolved questions

Qian Gang - Co-Director of China Media Project,
Journalism and Media Studies Centre,
University of Hong Kong

The mission of the media is to report the truth with fairness, objectivity, fullness and precision. However, Chinese media do not have the right to report independently on the July 5 incident; as for the western media, under the pressure of intense commercial competition, most are satisfied with the immediate reporting at the scene of the incident, with no desire to dig deeper into the event. Media enthusiasm for the incident cooled down quickly in the space of just two weeks. A review of the reports from various media has revealed many blind spots and unresolved questions surrounding the event:

* On the events on July 5

The Chairman of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region claimed that on July 4, someone had posted a large number of messages on QQ groups and discussion boards, calling on people to protest. The Urumqi police said that at 1:06 am, July 5 they had received a report saying that someone was spreading around a message on the internet, calling for people to assemble at 7 pm on the same day at the People's Square in Urumqi; and that upon receiving this news, the Urumqi police had immediately put into action an emergency plan. This begs the question why for 18 long hours, the authorities did not deploy sufficient manpower to control the situation, so that the tragic consequences of innocent civilians being chased and beaten to death could be avoided. It is fair to say that although there are numerous media reports on the July 5 riots, the whole truth has not been completely revealed.

* The instigation of Rebiya Kadeer

The authorities claim that Rebiya Kadeer, the president of the World Uyghur Congress, was the instigator of the riots; and that the police had intercepted and recorded telephone conversations which can be used as the evidence in support of this claim. However, this all important evidence has never been completely made public. All the government has ever mentioned is one sentence spoken by Kadeer to her brother in Urumqi, at 11am on July 5: “Many things have been happening recently, we all know about that. Tomorrow something might happen in Urumqi.” This sentence, though, does not match the timing of the riots; what Kadeer said was “tomorrow”, i.e. July 6, and it seems a bit far fetched to say that this conversation constitutes “instigation” of the riots that night. Yet the media have not conducted further checks on this.

* The instigation of the World Uyghur Congress

The authorities claim that after the Han-Uyghur violence in Shaoguan, the World Uyghur Congress had been using the internet to connect with criminals in the country, acting as a hub for coordination and giving instructions on actual action, inciting their supporters to “be braver”, “to cause big trouble”. On July 1 through the use of internet, telephone, SMS messages and so on, the World Uyghur Congress called on people inside the country to create trouble. These claims need to be supported by evidence, such as screenshots from the internet and images of the SMS messages; providing such evidence would greatly strengthen the government's position. However no such evidence was seen in the media.

* The problem of the “Three Evil Forces”

The media has quoted from the official conclusion, claiming that the July 5 incident was planned by the “three evil forces” - religious extremism, ethnic separatism and international terrorism. Yet are these “three evil forces” three different “forces”, each with its own objectives and organization, and merely work together at times, or are they actually one single “force”? Which “force” does the World Uyghur Congress and Kadeer belong to? Or are they equivalent to all three? The phrases used by the government are ambiguous at best and meaningless at worst, yet the media has never questioned their wording. Professor Alex P. Schmid, an authority in the research of international terrorism, is of the opinion that the “three evil forces” are three completely different entities.

* The question of terrorism

The question of whether the July 5 riots was a case of terrorist attack is an important one, as it could greatly affect the attitude of western countries. Currently, the reporting within China has presented the impression that the radical Islamic forces and the independent movement in Xinjiang are equivalent to so-called “East Turkestan” forces, i.e. terrorism. It is fair to ask for sufficient evidence to support such a conclusion. Is the World Uyghur Congress a terrorist organisation? Have “East Turkestan” forces been involved with the July 5 incident? Western media can conduct a more in depth investigation into this; at present there is a lack of convincing report on this matter. Recently Chinese media have widely cited a BBC report, saying that an East Turkestan organisation “Turkestan Islamic Party” had released a video on the internet, calling on Muslims around the world to attack targets that represent China's interests, in retaliation for the Chinese government's “repression of the Urumqi riots”. However, this does not demonstrate that East Turkestan forces have any direct control over the incident on July 5.

* The problem with ethnic tension and religion

The Chinese authorities have attempted to separate the July 5 incident from the problem of ethnic tension and religion, and repeatedly stressed that it was “neither a problem of ethnic clash nor a problem of religion”, confusing the public. Actually these two problems are intricately linked with the success or failure of the Party's policy in Xinjiang. Due to a lack of objective reporting, personal articles attempting to explain the origins of the Xinjiang problem proliferate on the internet inside China. The most important ones include: “The Danger in Xinjiang is Reaching a Critical Point” by Wang Lixiong; an interview with Wang Lixiong by the journalists from Yazhou Zhoukan, headed “To solve the Xinjiang Problem Requires a New Way of Thinking and U-turn”; “Goodbye, Iham“ by Huang Zhangjin; “An Article by a Second Generation of Corps: Telling You About the Real Xinjiang” by anonymous; and some articles by Xinjiang journalist Hailaite Niyazi which were posted on his own blog. It is obvious that an in depth discussion of the historical background of the July 5h incident is lacking from all but a few media in both China and the West.

The media has a responsibility towards

the public and the country to shed light on the aforementioned blind spots, and answer the various unresolved questions. A full disclosure of the truth could embarrass and annoy the authorities, or it could help the authorities win sympathy and support from the international community. During the July 5 incident the authorities had opened up media access to the scene of the incident and won commendation; yet its control on pluralistic expression of opinions and independent investigation has sown seeds of further troubles.

(Abstract from RTHK “Media Digest”, Aug 2009)