31 December 2015

Beijing, Xinjiang and the Press China shows its lack of confidence by expelling a foreign journalist.

Dec. 29, 2015
The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Dec. 26 decision not to renew the credentials of French journalist Ursula Gauthier, the first such expulsion in three years, suggests that Beijing is escalating pressure on foreign journalists. It also shows how sensitive the Communist Party is to criticism of its harsh policies against ethnic minorities.

Under Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, plainclothes police increasingly manhandle foreign reporters, and the Foreign Ministry holds up visa applications for publications that have reported on the wealth of top leaders. Ms. Gauthier’s offense was writing, five days after the Nov. 13 Paris terrorist attacks, about the Chinese government’s attempt to draw a parallel to violence in the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang. The Beijing correspondent for the newspaper L’Obs questioned China’s claim that a Sept. 18 incident that claimed 50 lives in the town of Baicheng was comparable to Paris massacre.

Beijing wants to justify its human-rights abuses in Xinjiang as a necessary response to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and separatism. But as Ms. Gauthier pointed out, central-government policies are driving the native Uighur population, which practices a moderate form of Islam, to desperate acts of violence. The state tightly restricts Uighurs’ practice of religion, freedom of movement and even the use of their own language.
While some Uighur violence against Han Chinese is terrorism, the attacks have little in common with those carried out by fanatical jihadists elsewhere. As Ms. Gauthier told the Guardian newspaper, “Nobody is saying there is no terrorism in Xinjiang. But they want us to say there is only terrorism in Xinjiang. This is the problem.”

As Ms. Gauthier wrote of the Baicheng violence, “In fact it was an explosion of local rage such as have blown up more and more often in this distant province whose inhabitants, turcophone and Muslim Uighurs, face pitiless repression. Pushed to the limit, a small group of Uighurs armed with cleavers set upon a coal mine and its Han Chinese workers, probably in revenge for an abuse, an injustice or an expropriation.”

This analysis is consistent with the pattern of such attacks. Most are spontaneous and carried out clumsily. There are exceptions, including the March 1, 2014 murders of 29 civilians at a train station in Kunming, when eight attackers brandished a separatist flag and clearly planned their actions. But even they were armed with knives rather than guns or explosives, suggesting little training or resources.

Beijing insists that all resistance to its rule in Xinjiang is directed by foreign terrorist organizations, especially the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. It’s not clear whether this group still exists, and the U.S. has taken it off its list of terrorist organizations.

Over the last few weeks China’s state-run media have vilified Ms. Gauthier, and she received death threats. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said her article “overtly advocates for acts of terrorism and killings of innocent civilians,” and the ministry demanded that she apologize. She refused.

The real target of this campaign may be domestic. Some Communist Party officials in Xinjiang have expressed views similar to Ms. Gauthier’s, arguing that excessive repression fuels violence rather than contains it. The Washington Post reported that Xu Hairong, secretary of Xinjiang’s Commission for Discipline Inspection, wrote in an official newspaper, “Some waver on clear-cut issues of opposing ethnic division and safeguarding ethnic and national unity, and even support participating in violent terrorist attacks.”

Beijing betrays its insecurity when it lashes out at perceptive critics, foreign or domestic, and brands them supporters of terrorism. If it were confident about its policies, it would allow reporters such as Ms. Gauthier access to Xinjiang and Tibet so they could better understand those regions. Instead it has again shown that it fears the truth could undermine the Party’s political control.

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