HONG KONG—Residents of China’s northwestern city of Urumqi don't trust official media, but experts say their reliance on old-fashioned rumors could lead to further unrest.
Han Chinese protesters in the capital of China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have in recent days demanded the removal of government officials they say failed to ensure public safety amidst a spate of syringe attacks.
Police have said hospitals in Urumqi are now treating 531 people who believe they were attacked with hypodermic needles, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, adding that most of the victims were Han.
Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu, sent to Urumqi to direct police action, said the same Uyghur minority separatists Beijing says were behind ethnic rioting that started July 5 also orchestrated the needle attacks.
'One-sided' news coverage
But residents are fed up with one-sided official news coverage and now rely on rumors—a practice that Dru Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College, said will lead to increased tensions between the two ethnic groups.
“There hasn’t really been an attempt to have any balanced reporting to try to report the Uyghur side of things … They tend to highlight whatever makes the Uyghur side look bad to the Chinese,” Gladney said.
“Leading up to the 60th anniversary, if they want to continue to try to portray the society as harmonious, why is it that these kinds of reporting tend to be so one-sided,” he said, referring to upcoming celebrations of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Gardner Bovingdon, a professor of Central Eurasian studies at the University of Indiana, said, “There is essentially no sympathy whatsoever in the Chinese media for ... the idea that Uyghurs might have legitimate grievances.”
June Dreyer, professor of Political Science at the University of Miami, said too many details of the reports on the syringe stabbings have been omitted in official media reports.
“It doesn’t take three days to examine the leftover residue in a couple of syringes to see is it just saline fluid or if it’s something more dangerous … Why isn’t the government telling us? They must have something to hide,” Dreyer said.
Infection with the AIDS virus is a concern, given Xinjiang's high rate of HIV cases, spread by needle-sharing among drug users.
“Particularly in a situation where mutual suspicions between Han and Uyghurs is already high and the government isn’t saying anything, then the rumors are going to be worse than probably the truth is,” she said.
Ilham Tohti, a prominent Beijing-based economist and member of China’s Uyghur ethnic minority, said the Chinese media are too focused on the concerns of the Han and should be giving voice to both sides of the dispute.
“All the available resources are in the hands of the Hans … It is not a issue for one ethnicity, but for all ethnic groups,” Tohti, a professor at Beijing's Central Nationalities University, said.
He added that the recent calls by Chinese protesters to remove regional Communist Party boss Wang Lequan from office signifies that even “the Han do not trust the government anymore.”
Experts said that the government has never allowed the concerns of China’s ethnic groups to be effectively heard, which has strained relations and led to an air of doubt on all sides.
Pomona’s Gladney said the official media’s portrayal of ethnic minorities in China has changed dramatically since the government was forced to crack down on pro-independence riots in Tibet in 2008 and the July 5 riots in Urumqi.
“In the past they were generally portrayed as the happy singing minorities celebrating the ‘Motherland,’ and part of the People’s Republic,” Gladney said.
He said that after the riots, China's media have begun to show minorities—particularly Uyghurs and Tibetans—as “extremely unruly and extremely uncontrolled” and to portray the mostly Muslim Uyghurs as “separatists and terrorists and Islamic radicals.”
He added that without providing evidence to back up claims that Uyghurs have been responsible for the syringe stabbings, the media are stoking ethnic hatred and lending credence to rumored reports.
“The media, particularly the state-controlled media, in China have been showing very unsympathetic portrayals of the Uyghurs in particular. And now this issue with the syringe attacks has only inflamed the Chinese population even more,” Gladney said.
Miami’s Dreyer agreed that China’s minorities feel victimized by the state media.
“Most ethnic minorities feel that they are looked at askance—that the media [are] portraying them as possible terrorists or troublemakers of various sorts,” Dreyer said.
Dreyer suggested that China’s media have subscribed to a history of “misguided policies” on ethnic differences, which have forced them to handle incidents of unrest extremely cautiously.
As a result, she said, people have come to expect a dearth of information from official sources in situations like the one unfolding in Urumqi.
“If [the government] reports correctly that a child has been killed or a grownup has been killed or something like that, then on one side or the other there will be anger and demonstrations. And if [nothing is reported] then there will be rumors that things happen,” Dreyer said.
“[The government] just has lost its credibility—I think not only with minorities but also with Han Chinese,” she said.
Gladney said the recent protests in Urumqi seemed to be “ruled from the street, rather than from the state,” which has led to conflicting reports and hysteria.
He said the government’s “heavy-handed response” to the July 5 riots in Urumqi has added to public outrage when its goal has been to promote ethnic unity and maintain calm.
“The government really needs to be much more immediate, responsive, and more strategic in the way it handles these mass incidents,” Gladney said.
Gladney said state media coverage has been largely based on “random interviews with victims” rather than confessions from those arrested in connection with the syringe stabbings.
He called the reporting “based on a lot of hearsay and some fear-mongering.”
“By repeating the rumors in the state media without getting to the source and having a great deal of substantive evidence, [this] has actually inflamed the situation,” he said.
Tohti said that the government is also portraying Urumqi’s Uyghurs as responsible for the recent unrest in the way that they have responded to protests.
He said the government response to recent Chinese protests was far less severe than its handling of the July 5 unrest, and that Uyghurs in the city would feel angered by the difference in treatment.
"The way the government handled the protesters is so different than the last time that they cracked down on the [Uyghur] protesters, even though the police used tear gas. The Uyghurs will compare these incidents," Tohti said.
"I am very anxious because even if you solve a war, it is difficult to solve the hatred between ethnic groups,” he said.
Tohti added that unless the government takes steps to quell the ethnic tensions by voicing the concerns of both sides, the violence would continue.
“The hatred between Chinese and Ugyhurs is deepening. I think it is reaching a critical point," Tohti said.
“If the government does not handle it appropriately, even the [XUAR] cities of Yining, Hotan, Aksu, Kashgar, and Turpan will break out with big protests,” he said.
Dreyer said it is now up to the Chinese government to regain the public’s trust. “But trust once lost is not easily regained,” Dreyer said.
“Their answer is just, ‘Let’s keep the lid on this. Let’s keep the Han from demonstrating, let’s keep the Uyghurs from demonstrating, and then let’s hope it dies down … But unless they deal with these simmering discontents, it may pop up again.”
Original reporting by Rachel Vandenbrink and Gai Lei Sze for RFA’s Cantonese service. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated by Shiny Li. Written for the Web by Joshua Lipes.