For a period of no more and perhaps considerably fewer than seventy-two hours in early July 2009, the international news media turned its gaze to somewhere it hadn’t looked for the better part of a century: the deserts of northwestern China. As journalists scrambled to learn the proper pronunciation of Ürümqi and Xinjiang, tensions between the ethnic Muslim Uyghur and the region’s growing Han Chinese population erupted into riots on a scale not seen anywhere in the country since Tiananmen Square twenty years earlier. At once pent-up retribution for ethnic violence against the Uyghur population and the giant last gasp from a separatist movement largely bred out by rigorous assimilation and re-education, the splits didn’t happen along the usual fault lines.
Unlike the regimes brought down before and since in the nations of Allah, this particular Islamic outpost had the distinction of falling within the borders of one of the world’s most aggressively non-religious countries. Ürümqi is the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China’s western frontier and one of the most underpopulated (and correspondingly underreported) expanses anywhere on the six habitable continents. Nominally governed from Beijing, the Uyghur population has in recent years had to compete for futures with Han Chinese drawn from the overcrowded eastern cities by the promise of jobs in the region’s resource boom.
But with the Han has come an increasing Sinofication of the region’s culture and customs, and on the occasions that the Uyghur attempted to exercise their autonomy they found that the boundaries they used to enjoy had closed in significantly. Traditional, community-based governing groups had been dismantled through the 1990s, restrictions were quietly placed on religious freedom, and as frustrations grew so did the police presence in the region. In China, as proven again by this year’s whimpering Jasmine Revolution, dissent is an uneasy fit. On July 5, 2009, violent riots broke out.
In a marked shift from the previous year’s uprising in Tibet, when foreign media was denied access to sites of unrest and their websites were blocked within China by the government’s notoriously overzealous firewall, the Chinese state media seemed unusually transparent in its coverage from Ürümqi. Images of (mostly Han) suffering flooded the channels from the first blow. In a nation known for making molehills out of mountains, at one hundred and ninety-two the official death toll was staggeringly high. But the images reflected a careful spin gleaned from the tricks of Western media.
This included not just keeping the region open to journalists, but, in an unprecedented move, inviting foreign media on what could only be described as a war zone junket. No sooner had the men and women of the world press deplaned in Ürümqi when the Chinese authorities whisked them off hand-in-hand to the front lines by way of the briefing room. By then the riots had mutated enough from the original shape of early cell phone camera accounts and Twitter feeds that the heroes and villains matched the party line pretty closely. The Uyghur were squarely on the attack. Journalists witnessed a coordinated military campaign cool a frenzied group of rioters and reported likewise. The worst was long over, leaving foreign media to either replay the same Chinese state television images that had flooded domestic outlets the day before or extrapolate events from what they were invited to see. And by July 8 it was all over.
For the story’s screenwriters, it was a calculated pre-emptive strike to bring the cameras in before the ending had been written. No doubt China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, had learned a lesson from Tibet, when, in the absence of on-the-ground reporting, pre-spun conjecture was rather eagerly passed off as real news. (In one particularly egregious example, a photograph of Nepalese policemen beating a Tibetan man in Kathmandu was captioned as having taken place in Tibet.) Then, foreign outlets had given themselves over too easily to the anti-Sino bias of an outspoken expat community. This was not to be repeated.
But what was reported as an assault against Beijing began and spent most of its life as something else entirely. Reference to its various catalysts—in particular the racially-motivated killing of two Uyghurs in the country’s east the week before—were largely stricken from the record. Though Human Rights Watch documented forty-three known cases of Uyghurs disappearing—a sample they described as the “tip of the iceberg”—it wasn’t until months after the riots that this surfaced. The events of the seventy-two hours were reported as if they had happened a vacuum, free of cause if not of consequence. In the end, the sound the world heard was not that of steam escaping from a valve but of air being blown into tires from outside.
Suspicions of spin aside, there were other reasons the Ürümqi riots stood little chance of becoming the story they could have been. This was an obscure conflict in an obscure place and comparisons could only take it so far. From National Geographic to Al Jazeera, faraway news outlets sold the region under the tidy catchphrase of “China’s Other Tibet”, but that was a rather feeble-minded attempt to present a broader story where none existed before. Unlike Tibet, where the decades-long struggle for self-determination has ignited fierce opinions in everyone from Washington policymakers to West Coast hippies, there was no pre-existing narrative here to advance into its second or third act.
In a way, the international media was its own worst enemy. Its coverage failed to anchor the riot to the larger twin stories of separatist ambitions or a society under systematic deconstruction. If the story burned brightly on July 6, statistics alone weren’t enough to keep the flame lit for the coming days or weeks. For all the bluster of the riot’s grand entrance on the world stage, little effort was made to establish long-term interest.
But the story is there if one looks deep enough. The Uyghur are a people from whom little is heard outside of China, given over to hyperbole by a disaffected diaspora and tarred every so often by the same casually-wielded brush of militant Islam designed to make an enemy of someone as fast as a person can say Al Qaeda. But the tradition of separatism here is richer than many realise. Their desires for a sovereign state having been exploited by Faustian villains of various descriptions, the Uyghur seceded twice last century, resulting in the creation the short-lived Republic of Uyghurstan in the 1930s and the Soviet-backed East Turkestan Republic in the 1940s. It was as the second of those fell to Chinese forces in 1944 that the long march to forced cohabitation began.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in the early 1990s and Xinjiang’s neighbours Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan became independent states, the separatist itch started anew. It was at the same time that China, emerging from decades of international isolation to make a grab for some of Japan’s spotlight, saw the need to draw its extremities closer to Beijing. In the case of Taiwan, this has meant using strongarm diplomacy to make an international pariah out of the would-be nation. In Xinjiang and places like Inner Mongolia, where the edges had been more-or-less successfully worn off a once-fierce independence movement, the methods have been largely imperceptible from outside.
Little has changed in the two years since the riots. A second wave of protests two months later that killed five went unnoticed outside China. The police presence has been reinforced by some forty thousand surveillance cameras recently installed in and around Ürümqi (most of those in the Uyghur precincts). But with the language of the region’s best futures now being Mandarin Chinese, not Uyghur, self-determination has largely fallen out of favour as a guiding ambition among the young, replaced with the excitement of jostling for position in a new China where anything seems possible if one knows how to play the game.