China Controls Narrative of Violence in Xinjiang

While Beijing’s propaganda apparatus works hard to guide public opinion nationwide (and abroad, to much less effect), the system runs on overdrive in especially sensitive regions of the country. Amid an ongoing crackdown on terrorism focused mostly on Xinjiang—itself a government response to a spike in violent incidents blamed by authorities on Uyghur separatists and religious extremists—Beijing has been closely managing the media with censorship directives related to individual incidentsall-encompassing instructions to follow state media’s lead when reporting on violence of any kind, routine Internet blackouts, and restrictions barring journalists from scenes of unrest. Last Monday, reports began circulating on social media of an attack and subsequent crackdown in Shache County; comments were quickly deleted and the topic was forbidden from further Internet discussion. More than 24 hours after the attack, Xinhua published a brief report, and independent media organizations were told to keep quiet. Meanwhile, activists presented foreign media organizations with vastly different descriptions of the incident. It wasn’t until this past weekend—five days after the attack—that Xinjiang authorities presented a more detailed account of the violence. A report from AP notes that Beijing’s monopoly on information in Xinjiang does much to fuel distrust and open up space for dispute:

“With no independent media coverage, it is easier for the state to demonize its enemies,” said Bob Dietz, Asia coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “But the fact that it doesn’t allow the rest of the world, foreign and Chinese journalists, to report independently throws the official version of events into disrepute.”

[…] “It is very frustrating because you never totally know what the story is,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism expert who studies China at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, a think tank in London. “Every time one tries to look into specific incidents, you get this reporting which has discrepancies within it, so you never really know, if you’re writing or researching about this, whether you’re getting things right.”

[…] Pantucci said the resulting ambiguity meant some fundamental questions about the recent uptick in violence remained unanswered. “What are we actually seeing? Is it that we’re seeing an organized terrorist network that is launching a series of coordinated attacks around the country?” Pantucci said. “Or are we seeing individuals who are angry at the state and are reacting in a haphazard way on very specific things? Or are we seeing both at the same time?” [Source]

Between Xinhua’s initial report on Shache and the release of the official death toll, two other violent incidents made the news—one when police shot two suspected of murdering a state-apponited imam, and the second after police shot nine suspected terrorists who were tracked down as part of a paid volunteer program. The New York Times notes that China’s state media is closely covering the cash rewards program:

“Six people who offered key tip-offs leading to the location of the suspected terrorists were awarded 100,000 renminbi each” at a ceremony on Sunday in Hotan (pictured above, in a post from Twitter) “for their bravery in hunting a group of 10 suspected terrorists,” Xinhua reported. Additional rewards were handed out at the event to other individuals and “government agencies,” for a total of 4.23 million renminbi.

Southern Xinjiang is among the poorest areas in China. In June, the newspaper China Daily noted that it was “generally poverty-stricken” in comparison to the region’s north, itself in many parts poor relative to the rest of China. [Source]

Also see editorials on the situation in Xinjiang from the Asahi Shimbun, arguing that government crackdowns on the local culture and religion of Xinjiang only work to “stir up resentment” in the region; or from the South China Morning Post, which argues that the economic development model in Xinjiang “needs to be modified so that the benefits more directly help Uygurs.”