China: Some surprises, some old news in Xinjiang

Security forces were protecting, rather than harassing, international journalists covering riots in northwestern Xinjiang this week–a welcome change. A few have reported official interference since Sunday. But during previous outbursts of ethnic unrest in China’s Tibetan and Uighur autonomous regions, security forces have repeatedly antagonized and expelled the foreign press corps. Foreign reporters this week have instead been welcomed to the regional capital, Urumqi, allowed a privileged enclave of Internet access, and corralled on an official tour of the city’s ravaged center. 

Official news agency Xinhua, which has downplayed news of anti-government violence in the past, is enthusiastically monitoring the rising death toll, now past 150. And after eyewitnesses overwhelmed censors with news updates on social networking sites, the mainstream Chinese media embraced images of the clashes between the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority and Han Chinese residents that were spreading online.

There, however, the surprises end. The numbers and the graphic pictures are stoking the Han majority’s outrage against the Uighur protesters, who the government alleges have been coordinated by exile groups abroad. (Exiled Uighurs countered that theory, saying video of initially peaceful protests against Chinese rule had also been posted online, according to international news reports. But that message has yet to make the cut in state-sanctioned broadcasts.)

Meanwhile, in photographs that flooded the international press today, it’s hard not to notice that the protesters are largely depicted as scarved women and their children while the Han Chinese are shown as armored security forces and hoards of young men carrying spades and stakes. Doubtless these pictures do not tell the full story of what unfolded in Xinjiang this weekend. But their impact, in coding the protagonists for an audience used to seeing authoritarian states oppressing minorities, will be hard to undo.

Sources on the ground who might help us navigate these conflicting scenarios are apparently hard to come by. “Getting any Uighurs in Urumqi to talk on Monday was impossible,” Peter Ford wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, summing up the repressive atmosphere in Xinjiang as “the hardest place I have ever worked.”

If you think this is reminiscent of Tibet, you aren’t the only one. Separatism, the catchall government explanation for unrest in Xinjiang as well as Tibet, gains currency from anti-terror rhetoric when used with reminders of the Uighur community’s Muslim identity. And the most depressingly familiar aspect of the media coverage so far is the rhetoric wheeled out by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily today, under the title “Unveiled Rebiya Kadeer: a Uighur Dalai Lama.”

Rebiya Kadeer is a 62-year-old former businesswoman and mother of 11, who was imprisoned for six years in China and now leads Uighur organizations in the U.S., according to The Associated Press. In the Daily‘s inflammatory analysis she is “an ironclad separatist colluding with terrorists and Islamic extremists.” Furthermore, matching its evocation of the Tibetan “Dalai clique” almost word for word, the Daily suggests that the “Rebiya Kadeer group” is responsible for the “beating, smashing, looting, and burning” in Xinjiang. Kadeer denies the allegations.

Yawn. When anti-separatist editorials are practically copied-and-pasted from earlier uprisings, you know the government’s media strategy, despite tentative amendments for some foreigners, has yet to transform.