Society

Unrest in the west

This week’s unrest in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, has been widely covered

What was the immediate lead up to the violence?

There is reporting of the immediate spark: the death at the end of June of two Uighur workers at a factory in Guangdong, after clashes with Han locals following unfounded internet allegations of rape.

In fact, the spread of wild online rumours were one factor in the shut down of the internet across the province this week, reports Xinhua. Comment sections on web news sites have also been disabled, although online entries at Caijing indicated a split between those urging restraint, and those who wanted a “strike hard” response.

The violence was sudden and unexpected, reports the China Daily. But it must not be allowed to stir up ethnic hatred, insists the Global Times, as this will derail further social and economic progress in the region.

The Western press generally agrees on most of the reports on the initial violence, and that the majority of the 156 deaths so far reported were Han Chinese. Adam Minter of the blog Shanghai Scrap says there is a notable difference in tone to the coverage of last year’s unrest in Tibet. He wonders if this is a case of “Buddhist protests and Muslim riots.”

But The Times in the UK is also representative in offering ‘backgrounder’ analysis of the riots, including references to widescale Han migration and uneven social and economic development as factors in stirring up ethnic tension. Xinjiang as a region is “as distinct from eastern China in history, atmosphere and geography as Turkey is from Britain,” The Times notes.

Is there an international dimension?

Yes, say the Chinese press. Most of the editorials argue that the unrest was encouraged from overseas, and in particular by the World Uighur Congress and its leader-in-exile Rebiya Kadeer. They recount recordings of telephone calls in which Kadeer is reported to be promising “something will happen in Urumqi.”

State television in Xinjiang has been broadcasting too on the ongoing threat from “the Three Evils” of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. The Global Times concurs, drawing attention to evidence “found by the US State Department” that Uighur extremists have connections to Al Qaeda.

The Western media wants to see more of the evidence linking Kadeer to the unrest, and mentions her rebuttal of the accusations. The BBC says it is hard to gauge her influence in Xinjiang but expects the government denunciations to raise her profile.

The Uighur connection to Al Qaeda gets some discussion too but the general view seems to be that the evidence is inconclusive here as well. The New York Times notes the recent release of a group of Uighur detainees from Guantanamo Bay, but only in a context in which US officials have admitted that most were the victims of dishonest Pakistani bounty hunters and were not, in fact, “enemy combatants”.

Has the media been better handled this time?

Media openness lauded” is a China Daily headline, and there is agreement that the government is permitting a more open approach. Xinhua apparently issued its first statement within an hour of the violence starting, a stark contrast to the three-day silence that followed disturbances in Tibet last year.

The New York Times agrees that there has been a clear change of strategy. Far from being banned from the city, reporters were bussed in, “to know better about the riots”, according to the local authorities. They arrived to find a media centre already set up, and a hefty discount on local hotel rates.



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