An expert's point of view on a current event.

What Really Happened in Urumqi?

One year later, here's what we still don't know about the bloody riots in China's Xinjiang region.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Nearly a year after violent riots engulfed Urumqi, the capital city of China's restive Xinjiang region, major questions about China's deadliest ethnic unrest in decades remain unanswered.

Nearly a year after violent riots engulfed Urumqi, the capital city of China’s restive Xinjiang region, major questions about China’s deadliest ethnic unrest in decades remain unanswered.

Key facts remain unknown or in dispute.

First, how many Uighurs were killed at a southern China toy factory in late June, an event that helped trigger the Urumqi riots hundreds of miles away? Chinese officials say two Uighurs were killed in a fight with Han Chinese workers; several eyewitnesses and Uighur leaders say many more Uighurs were beaten to death in an unprovoked attack.

Second, how were the riots in Xinjiang organized? The government insists they were preplanned and instigated by outside forces, including exiled Uighur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer. Kadeer and others have said the protests were grassroots in origin, spurred largely by the lack of arrests in the Shaoguan toy factory murders.

Finally, what was the ethnic divide of those killed in the riots? The Chinese government says most victims were Han Chinese, while Uighur rights groups insist that more Uighurs were killed than has been acknowledged.

Advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch have attempted to uncover answers to these questions, but controls on journalists and pressure on sources have limited independent investigations.

These significant looming questions are all the more galling when you consider that Xinjiang was supposed to have been open to foreign journalists. On the heels of last year’s deadly riots in Urumqi, the Chinese government made the surprising decision to allow foreign journalists access to the city to cover the mayhem.

The move marked a radical departure from the government’s handling of a similar crisis in Tibet a year earlier, when Beijing locked down the region amid violent protests, allowing only a few non-Chinese journalists to visit on official trips with minders.

In the case of the Xinjiang riots, the government actually invited foreign journalists to Urumqi and provided them with a designated hotel and press center; their access to telephone and Internet services was assured, at least for a time, even when communication services to the region were cut. It’s true that foreign journalists were given tours and suggestions by Chinese minders, but those reporters who went described relatively open reporting opportunities.

The government’s turnabout surprised many and drew guarded compliments for alleged openness. As a July 2009 Reuters article described the situation: "The access for foreign media in Urumqi was in marked contrast to a blanket prohibition on travel to Tibetan areas after last March, when demonstrations across the plateau followed deadly riots in Lhasa." The political calculation in Beijing that afforded this degree of relative openness in Xinjiang is still not understood.

But there is a problem in this narrative around Beijing’s handling of the Xinjiang riots. Although the city of Urumqi was relatively open to foreign media, most of Xinjiang — particularly Kashgar, the political center of Uighur culture — remained off-limits for practical purposes. As a result, it has become increasingly unlikely that a clear picture of what happened will ever emerge.

Intense pressure on Uighurs in China has kept most from speaking openly about events leading up to the riots. "I think that under the current repressive conditions on freedom of speech and information in Xinjiang, it will be very difficult to get at the truth of what exactly transpired — beyond the individual accounts of Uighurs brave enough to step forward," says Henryk Szadziewski, manager of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project. "To get at the truth would take a change of direction from the Chinese government that has until the present not been seen — to allow an independent and international investigation that encompasses the testimonies of all stakeholders."

Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at University of California at Berkeley and editor of the project’s affiliated news site, China Digital Times, noted that China’s information controls around the Xinjiang riots went beyond limits on reporting. The entire region’s Internet access was shut down just hours into the riots. Several commerce-related sites were reopened in February, and Internet service was fully restored this May. 

"There are a lot of things we don’t know about the whole situation," says Xiao. "The fact that they closed the Internet for so long is a symptom of how serious things were."

I experienced the lockdown firsthand on a trip to Kashgar this winter. For five days, I managed to elude police attention, but it was made very clear that most locals wouldn’t dare speak openly with a foreign journalist. Kashgar’s tour guides were instructed to report to police any journalists who hired them, and one European colleague was aghast to discover that a local family he interviewed about the Eid festival was later questioned by police. To be clear, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing has explicitly said Kashgar is open to foreign media.

My own run-in came when a delayed flight forced me to stay an extra night. I checked into what is meant to be the nicest hotel in town, a standard-issue high-rise full of rowdy businessmen. I waited as late as possible to check in, as I knew the journalist stamp on my passport would likely draw the police. Within 20 minutes, five officials came knocking on my door, demanding to know why I was in Kashgar and insisting I leave.

Later, in the lobby, the hotel manager offered me a halfhearted apology for calling the police when he realized a foreign journalist checked into his hotel.

Free press and human rights groups now worry about the climate leading up to and during the one-year anniversary, with initial reports suggesting that China will allow foreign journalists back into Xinjiang. But locals report heightening pressure not to talk to reporters, and the Chinese media remains leashed.

The government’s own post-riot assessment suggested it was pleased with last year’s media policy and coverage — another unusual departure. In comments quoted by the official Xinhua news agency in July, Wang Chen, head of the State Council Information Office, said the media strategy worked well. Wang has described the new approach to media control as "more open."

"Openness stemmed from confidence; rumors were stopped by truth, by the rapid and wide dissemination of truth," Wang said.

In fact, access to Xinjiang is difficult for journalists a year after the riots, and new concerns have emerged about local sources refusing to talk for fear of repercussions. China’s handling of Xinjiang could offer a glimpse of future media-control policies. The new approach — allowing some access to information while blocking most — seems to have worked in both hiding facts and placating some critics.

"I’m sure this was a kind of an experiment by the Chinese government on how to handle a crisis," said the China Digital Times’ Xiao.

In other words, Beijing is updating, but hardly lifting, its media controls.

Kathleen E. McLaughlin is an award-winning journalist based in Butte, Montana, after many years in China. Twitter: @kemc

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