When violence erupted in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region, home to the Uyghur Muslim minority, China’s state media rushed to “cover” the news, and Western media followed their lead.
"The clashes between ethnic Muslim Uyghurs and China's Han majority in Xinjiang that left more than 150 dead signaled a new phase in a region used to seeing bombings and assassinations by militant separatists but few mass protests," wrote Associated Press (AP).
“The death toll from violent ethnic riots in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region has risen to 156, and police on Monday dispersed ‘rioters’ in a second city, the official Xinhua news agency said early on Tuesday,” reported Reuters.
But media experts and Uyghur activists say that China’s state-controlled media are working to frame the story in favor of the regime, a strategy one Hong Kong-based Chinese media expert calls “Control 2.0.”
“By getting the information out, officials can get the ‘peripheral media’ (influential portal news sites, and commercial newspapers) to work for them,” writes David Bandurski editor of the China Media Project Web site in his analysis of the earlier riots in Shishou.
“These media feed off of the original Xinhua reports, amplifying their effect. Those same reports, with only slight permutations in many cases, become AFP, Reuters, and AP reports.”
Using this method, Bandurski says the Chinese regime can kill negative information and keep “rabble-rousing professional media away.”
While Chinese state media set the tone for reporting, the regime worked to cut uncontrolled information from escaping the region.
Tala Dowlatshahi, with Reporters Without Borders in New York, said more than 50 Uyghur-language Internet forums were closed yesterday and communications were cut down.
“The people of that region are completely cut off from the rest of the world,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of answers for you but I can tell you that we are not getting the real story.”
Uyghurs in Canada say that friends and family have disappeared off instant messenger services, don’t answer their cell phones, and don’t reply to e-mails.
While early reports of the riots in Xinjiang relied heavily on Chinese media sources few, if any, of those reports, mentioned that these same state media are regarded as propaganda tools of the regime.
“[News media] should be greatly concerned about the accuracy of any reports by Chinese state media because Chinese state media reports one side,” she said, noting that all coverage serves the regimes political interests,” Dowlatshahi said.
Xinhua has also worked hard to frame the story as a clash of Han and Uyghur ethnicities fueled by terrorists within the Uyghur minority. But Uighur experts are saying the tension there is caused mainly by longstanding grievances related to the Chinese regime’s occupation of the region.
The Uyghur people have suffered a fate similar to Tibetans after their region was taken over by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. Thousands were killed, their religious institutions were destroyed, their language banned, and recent policies have seen Uyghur families coerced to send their children to inland schools and their young women to work in inland cities. Few of the women ever return and Uyghur activists say they are forced into prostitution.
Amnesty International says that since the 1980s, “The Chinese government has mounted an aggressive campaign that has led to the arrest and arbitrary detention of thousands of Uyghurs on charges of ‘Terrorism, separatism and religious extremism’ for peacefully exercising their human rights.”
Although international media reports were skeptical when the Chinese regime portrayed riots in Tibet before the Olympics as a plot cooked up by the Dalai Lama, they have been far more willing to accept and reprint the regime’s line on the situation in Xinjiang, say Uyghur activists in Canada and the United States.
“Most of the media just show [the] Chinese side, take the Chinese media’s pictures and photos,” said Rukiye Turdesh, president of the Uyghur Canadian Society.
Chinese state media reports focused on Han Chinese, she said, and presented Uyghurs as violently attacking Han Chinese people. Western media then followed suit, said Turdesh.
“They don’t show any pictures of how Uyghurs are killed. They don’t say anything about the Uighurs, what happened to the Uyghurs, they just say the Chinese were beaten, the Chinese were killed. What is this, it is not fair, right? They just copy the Chinese media,” Turdesh said.
“Uyghurs are helpless, they don’t have soldiers, they don’t have guns, they have nothing, the Chinese have everything and the Chinese blocked the information, we don’t know what is happening over there right now. Even if China killed all of them, massacred all of the Uyghurs, nobody could know.”
Turdesh said that watching footage of Uyghurs being attacked and killed that got out of the region before the regime cut it off from the outside world was unbearable for her.
Alim Seytoff, general secretary of the Uyghur American Association, the umbrella group that the Chinese regime accuses of orchestrating the riots, said later coverage of the riots has improved, with more media talking to Uyghur sources, but he is still concerned too many news sources give credence to Chinese state media.
“It is wrong for the international community to take words coming out of the Chinese media as facts, they should be cautious about that because it is always prejudiced and one-sided.”
Xinhua and CCTV, China’s most influential and pervasive media, which smaller Chinese outlets take as guides for their own reporting, have been framing the riots in Xinjiang eerily similarly to those in Tibet in March 2008.
While the Dalai Lama was blamed for orchestrating the riots in Tibet, Rebiya Kadeer, a leading Uyghur activist and president of World Uyghur Congress is being blamed for the current riots.
Like Tibetans, Uyghurs are consistently portrayed as “barbaric, lazy, and stupid,” said Alim.
The Chinese regime has gone a step further in trying to manage the media by inviting overseas reporters to Xinjiang for guided tours of hospitals and riot areas.
“The important phrase is ‘guided tours.’ They did the same thing in Tibet itself,” said D.J. McGuire, co-founder of the China e-Lobby and author of Dragon in the Dark: How and Why Communist China Helps Our Enemies in the War on Terror.
“The problem is that people have already been preconditioned to not believe what the cadres say on Tibet, so there was something of that in the Tibet coverage,” said McGuire, referring to the fact that media coverage on the Tibet riots was very sympathetic to the Tibetans, and those guided tours were largely seen as a farce.
“People understood that, but they don’t understand that as much with what is going on in Urumqi [Xinjiang’s capital].”
The fact that Uyghurs are Muslim further conflates the issue, he said.
“After 9/11 it became much easier to paint any Muslim resistance as terrorist and anti-Western than it is to do the same with any resistant in Tibet, so that is what colors the coverage,” he said.
The regime was caught trying to frame Uyghurs for terrorist attacks when evidence emerged months after that a reported machete attack in Xinjiang just before the Olympics was actually played up by state media. Chinese paramilitary officers were also discovered to have staged an anti-terror raid in Urumqi in 2008.