China, Uighur Groups Give Conflicting Riot Accounts

China, Uighur Groups Give Conflicting Riot Accounts

Gallery

Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 25, 2009

 

 

For Kadeer, a 63-year-old former business mogul from Xinjiang who was exiled in 2005 and now lives in the Washington area, observers say the main challenge is convincing people that she can give an authoritative account of events that happened in a country she has not visited in years. Uighur exile groups have declined to provide information about their sources in China, saying they fear that those people will be arrested or worse if they speak out.

Resentment has been building for years between Han Chinese, who make up 92 percent of China’s population and dominate its politics and economy, and Uighurs, who once were the majority in the far west, but whose presence there has shrunk in recent decades because of migration by Han Chinese.

Although the Chinese government says its policies have improved Uighurs’ educational and job opportunities, some Uighurs say its goal is to assimilate them at the expense of their language, religion and culture.

In the past, the government has linked Uighur separatism to a group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which it characterizes as a terrorist organization and blames for some recent attacks. Some analysts say that China exaggerates the influence of this group.

When it comes to the events of July 5, Dong Guanpeng, director of the Global Journalism Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said he thinks China is being honest this time, but that doubts have been cast on the information it is releasing because Kadeer is “doing a better job than the Chinese government in public relations.”

 

 BEIJING — Three weeks after the riots that left nearly 200 people dead and more than 1,700 injured in the capital of the far western Xinjiang region, the Chinese government and Uighur exile groups have been circulating dueling versions of what happened, in an emotional global propaganda war with geopolitical implications.

This Story
  • China, Uighur Groups Give Conflicting Riot Accounts
  • A Guide to China’s Ethnic Groups
  • Ethnic Clashes in China Lead to Riots

According to the version of events offered by China’s Foreign Ministry and state media, the ethnic unrest that erupted in Urumqi on July 5 was a terrorist attack by Uighur separatists. Women in black Islamic robes stood at street corners giving orders, and at least one handed out clubs, officials said, before Muslim Uighur gangs in 50 locations throughout the city simultaneously began beating Han Chinese.

In the account being circulated by Rebiya Kadeer, a U.S.-based Uighur leader who has emerged as the community’s main spokesman, Chinese security forces were responsible for the violence that night. According to Kadeer, police and paramilitary and other troops chased peaceful demonstrators, mostly young people protesting a deadly factory brawl elsewhere, into closed-off areas. Then they turned off streetlights and began shooting indiscriminately.

Clear Details Absent

Chinese authorities have allowed foreign reporters access to the area where the clashes occurred and unusual freedom to conduct interviews, and they have provided evidence verifying the brutal attacks on Han Chinese. But few details are clear, and many witnesses who might be able to answer other questions — Who set off the initial violence? Why were the police unable to stop the attacks? — are either in jail or dead.

“The narratives of both the Chinese government and outside observers about what happened are hobbled by the lack of independent, verifiable accounts,” said Phelim Kine, a researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, which is calling for a U.N. investigation into the incident.

Both sides face huge obstacles in trying to convince the world of their stories.

The Chinese government, after decades of covering up and denying such incidents, has a major trust problem, many analysts say. Chinese officials have said they will release video footage of the attacks, phone records and other evidence to support their view of the events in Urumqi, but have not yet done so.

For Kadeer, a 63-year-old former business mogul from Xinjiang who was exiled in 2005 and now lives in the Washington area, observers say the main challenge is convincing people that she can give an authoritative account of events that happened in a country she has not visited in years. Uighur exile groups have declined to provide information about their sources in China, saying they fear that those people will be arrested or worse if they speak out.

Resentment has been building for years between Han Chinese, who make up 92 percent of China’s population and dominate its politics and economy, and Uighurs, who once were the majority in the far west, but whose presence there has shrunk in recent decades because of migration by Han Chinese.

Although the Chinese government says its policies have improved Uighurs’ educational and job opportunities, some Uighurs say its goal is to assimilate them at the expense of their language, religion and culture.

In the past, the government has linked Uighur separatism to a group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which it characterizes as a terrorist organization and blames for some recent attacks. Some analysts say that China exaggerates the influence of this group.

When it comes to the events of July 5, Dong Guanpeng, director of the Global Journalism Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said he thinks China is being honest this time, but that doubts have been cast on the information it is releasing because Kadeer is “doing a better job than the Chinese government in public relations.”

“Of course, Rebiya’s statements have won sympathy in foreign countries,” Dong said. “They contain beautiful lies.”

This Story
  • China, Uighur Groups Give Conflicting Riot Accounts
  • A Guide to China’s Ethnic Groups
  • Ethnic Clashes in China Lead to Riots

Kadeer’s version of events appears to have gained traction abroad. In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed solidarity with China’s Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority group, and described the riots as “a kind of genocide.” Protesters in Tokyo, Washington, Munich and Amsterdam have descended on Chinese embassies and consulates demanding a full account of what happened to Uighurs. A top Iranian cleric condemned China for “horribly” suppressing the community, and al-Qaeda’s North African arm vowed to avenge Uighurs’ deaths.

Zhan Jiang, a professor of journalism and mass communications at the China Youth University for Political Sciences, contends that the Chinese government inadvertently elevated Kadeer’s status and gave her an audience that she does not deserve. Beijing has accused Kadeer of being the “mastermind” behind the clashes in Urumqi, accusations she denies.

“The government should haven’t portrayed her as a hero by condemning her. She was unknown at first, and she is a well-known person in the world right now,” Zhan said.

Gaps in Both Stories

Meanwhile, China has hit back by assigning some blame to third parties. The Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper said that the United States backed the “separatists” who launched the attacks. It also said that Kadeer’s organization received funds from the National Endowment for Democracy, which in turn is funded by the U.S. Congress. Separately, the official China Daily has played up the terrorism angle, saying that the riots were meant to “help” al-Qaeda and were related to the continuing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

Some analysts say there are holes in both sides’ narratives.

For instance, according to Kadeer’s timeline of events, the violence was triggered by police who “under the cover of darkness . . . began to fire” on the protesters. But witnesses have said the rioting began about 8 p.m. Beijing time, when the sun was still up in Urumqi, 1,500 miles west of Beijing.

Chang Chungfu, a specialist in Muslim and Uighur studies at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, said “the two parties — the government and Kadeer — are choosing the parts of the stories that favor their own agendas,” in efforts to win foreign sympathy.

He said he considers it “unlikely that a peaceful protest turned into violence against innocent people just because of policemen cracking down,” suggesting at least a measure of organization to the Uighurs’ attacks on Han Chinese that night.

On the other hand, Chang said, he is skeptical of the government’s assertions that Kadeer instigated the attacks because she lacks that kind of power. Furthermore, he said, “the government hasn’t released detailed information of those who were killed, such as their ages and identities, so even the number of dead is in doubt.”

Li Wei, a terrorism expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, which is affiliated with China’s national security bureau, dismissed allegations by state media of involvement by outside terrorist groups. “I have not found any proof that points at linkage between the riot and other terrorism groups, including al-Qaeda,” he said.

Li did say, however, that he believes Kadeer is in contact with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based terrorism expert, blamed some of the tension on Beijing’s failure to differentiate “between terrorists who attack and the political activities of separatists.”

“If China is too hard on the Uighur people, then support of terrorism will grow,” Gunaratna said. “The Chinese government must be hard on terrorists but soft on the Uighur people.”

Researchers Liu Liu, Wang Juan and Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s