Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Clashes between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese

False familiarity in Xinjiang


To Israeli eyes, the international media's coverage of the clashes between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang province has seemed relatively non-judgmental so far. Chinese authorities are less sanguine, wondering why rioters have been described as peaceful protesters.

Over 150 people have been killed, 1,000 wounded and 1,400 arrested in three days of unrest. Hundreds of shops and cars have been set ablaze and parts of the city of Urumqi look like a war zone.

Authorities insist the violence has been instigated by expatriate agitators, pointing specifically to the German-based World Uighur Congress, and to a Washington-area activist named Rebiya Kadeer.

The Uighurs (pronounced Wee-gurs) are ethnically and religiously tied to the Turkic-speaking region of the former Soviet Union. They complain that the Chinese government limits their freedom to practice Islam. Radical Islam has made inroads in Xinjiang; 20 Uighurs have been captured by US forces in Afghanistan.

The ethnic Han, who dominate China, view Xinjiang as not only geo-strategically essential, but vital because of its oil and gas reserves. The central government encourages Han people to settle in Xinjiang. Once there, they live mostly segregated from the Uighur majority.

A deadly brawl last month between Han and Uighur factory workers, followed by rumors of reprisals, ignited the latest surge of unrest. Muslim mobs chanting "God is great" have confronted security forces, while club-wielding Han counter-demonstrators, fuming because they feel police are not doing enough to protect them, tried marching on a mosque yesterday before being dispersed by police.

THE XINJIANG unrest caught most consumers of news unprepared and unable to form instant opinions.

Until 1977, when Deng Xiaoping began the still ongoing process of transforming China into a more open society, foreign journalists were not even permitted into the region. But when the latest violence erupted, 24/7 cable news coverage kicked-in, as did reporting by the prestige press and wire services. Still, viewers and readers were mostly unfamiliar with the "back story."

What they now "know" - having seen the images - is that heavily armed Chinese police backed by truck-mounted water-cannons confronted demonstrators, who included women and children. They "saw" a lone, elderly woman, leaning on a cane, facing down an armored truck of the paramilitary People's Armed Police; they "witnessed" unidentified victims of the violence hospitalized on life-support, and a child with a head wound reportedly shot while "holding the hand of his pregnant mother when she [too] was shot."

So which will have the lasting impact - the above images, or the assertion by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang that what has been going on in Xinjiang is "not a peaceful protest, but evil killing, fire-setting and looting"?

The Uighurs claim they have engaged in peaceful protest only to have been set upon by security forces. Qin says they are turning "black into white in an attempt to mislead the public."

The Chinese seem to appreciate that emotive images are overpowering their explanations. So they've gone on the PR offensive, escorting foreign journalists to Urumqi to "see for themselves." They have concurrently shut down cell phone networks and Internet access to keep the Uighurs' message from getting out, and to obstruct their ability to organize.

But the Internet age makes it basically impossible to seal a country hermetically, or manage the flow of news.

JUST about anyone with a computer or a television has a firm opinion about "what Israel must do" to address Palestinian grievances. Familiarity, even if rooted in ignorance, makes everyone an instant expert. The Xinjiang unrest, bringing new players into the media spotlight, leaves most people more befuddled than opinionated, though not averse to blaming the authorities by default.

The side that wears uniforms is always at a public relations disadvantage when it is confronted by images of wailing women and children in traditional garb. In days, some media coverage has planted the germ of the idea that Xinjiang is East Turkestan.

We Israelis might want to recall Xinjiang the next time we feel the world media is being uniquely harsh on us. And perhaps a more humble Chinese leadership will reflect on how easy it is to turn "black into white" before jumping on the anti-Israel bandwagon.

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