China refused in December to renew a work visa for French reporter Ursula Gauthier, effectively expelling the veteran journalist Beijing had accused of 'supporting terrorism' for her reporting from Xinjiang, home of the Uyghur minority. Gauthier, who had lived in China for more than 16 years in stints that began in 1979, spoke to Mamatjan Juma of RFA’s Uyghur Service about her reporting and subsequent treatment at the hands of Chinese authorities and the state media which vilified her after her report in L'Obs magazine rejecting China’s effort to present a spate of violence in Xinjiang as similar to jihadist terrorist attacks in France.
RFA: Before, during the ‘80s, you said Xinjiang wasn’t as developed as it is right now, but it was not as tense. China is saying that ‘We brought development, and we did this and we did that, we improved the living standards of the Uyghurs.’ So why do you think that all the so-called happiness that China is talking about didn’t bring any happiness to the Uyghurs?
Gauthier: It didn’t bring happiness to anyone, in fact. Not even the Han. I mean, this kind of development is very quick, but it doesn’t help to bring equality and good living standards to everyone. So everywhere in China you have the same problems. The only difference is that in Xinjiang and in certain areas, in minority areas, this is even more visible. Because you have this difference between minority and majority, and you see that people from the majority are taking advantage of the system. And mostly in the minority—not everyone—but mostly they don’t have any advantage from this system of development. But everyone knows it’s basically the same phenomenon even in the mainland, what they call ‘inside China.’ It’s more or less the same situation. It’s a very unequal process.
RFA: Yes, but during the ‘80s we didn’t see these many attacks in the Uyghur region. And it’s increasing. And in 'inland China' we see resentments but we don’t see attacks like that by the Chinese, so if you compare that . . .
Gauthier: Well, I don’t agree. There are many attacks by Chinese people, disgruntled people. But they don’t publicize it. For instance, at one time we heard so much about people who were going in the schools and who were killing a lot of children and their teachers, and then after a while we didn’t hear about it because, in fact, the authorities said, 'Do not report about those questions.' And then we heard also about people going to hospitals on TV. You have everywhere this kind of rage expressing itself when one person is, who knows, maybe a bit psychologically unstable or having special difficulties, and they do this. You have it also in nei-di, Chinese China, but they speak about it more in the minority areas. That’s all. That’s the difference, I think.
RFA: So you’re saying that the attacks that happened in the Uyghur region, there’s nothing different from the attacks happening in inland China by the Chinese people against the civilians.
Gauthier: I would say there is one difference, which is that in the minority areas the people have a clear consciousness of what’s going on in terms of political pressure, political exploitation, and they know that it’s not their people who are really at the head of this movement, and it’s people coming from inland China. They know that. So it seems directed towards the authorities, and given that the authorities are mainly Han people, it seems to be racial or maybe ethnic. But the fact is it’s the same thing everywhere. But when it’s Han people who attack Han people, you don’t say that it’s ethnic. In fact, it’s a rebellion against the authorities.
RFA. So as you said, you lived in China for 16 years. Were you always harassed while in China as a journalist because of your controversial writings about China? Or was this the first time that you faced this much pressure by the Chinese government?
Gauthier: I didn’t have this kind of pressure beforehand. At the beginning, I was really amazed. I was shocked, because I had had unhappy encounters with policemen, but it was while I was doing my reports. And in the field, when you go to places where something is happening, something sensitive, it’s normal that some journalists meet with policemen and then we sometimes have rough moments. But never have I seen someone telling me ‘What you wrote is not OK.’ That was the first time.
RFA: Can you tell us about this latest article, which caused your expulsion from China?
Gauthier: This article is a kind of analysis of what happened after the Paris attacks, and the fact that Chinese authorities tried to paint themselves as being in exactly the same situation as French people after the attacks, saying, ‘We too are under the same kind of attack.’ And at first I was shocked, because it’s not true. And then they used this one specific event that happened in [Bay County] and they said that this event proves that China is under the same kind of attack from the international jihadi movement. And whatever we know now about what actually happened there came from Radio Free Asia. And what we knew at that time, for at least two months, the Chinese authorities didn’t say anything, they never even mentioned this event. And then all of a sudden, this becomes a jihadi attack. If it were really a jihadi attack, they would have told about that from the beginning. So it’s so obvious that this was a manipulation, and it was really important for me as a French journalist to make an article to tell the difference between what happened there and what happened in Paris. And that is what didn’t please them. That was the point where they were angry at me.
RFA: In your article you also pointed out that in the Baicheng [Bay] attack, there were some women and underage children. Is this why you say that it was totally different from the Paris attack as well?
Gauthier: Well no, that’s not why, because the fact is that what we know of this attack is that it was done by three people, three men, who are not young jihadis as we now know well from the portrait of the jihadi attackers in Russian countries. They were rather old men who had women and children [with them] and who did this for a motive we don’t really understand yet. They attacked a mine and the boss of this mine, and then they went on a rampage, and they killed everyone who was working in this mine and then the policemen who came to the mine. So from my analysis, from what we know of the kind of people who were doing this, and the kind of situation, the kind of place where it happened … I mean, if it is a terrorist attack it has be in a very central place. It’s not like in a very lost place very far from the city center. So to be a terrorist attack, it has to make a big impression on the people who hear about that. And the people who did this attack, they certainly knew that nobody would speak about this attack, because the Chinese government wouldn’t allow the news to go out. So the whole purpose of doing a terrorist attack wasn’t there. So for me it wasn’t a terrorist attack. It was a bloody attack. It was murder, mass murder, but you cannot call that terrorist simply because many people died, because many innocent people died.
RFA: The Chinese government asked you to apologize, and they also called you a terrorist lover, terrorist supporter, and they even intimidated you with expulsion, and you never moved. What made you stand fast? Why didn’t you change your mind and say, ‘Yes it was a terrorist attack?’ Is this because you know the Uyghur situation well?
Gauthier: Yes, yes, I know the situation. I know that there are very bloody attacks. I don’t like violence, and I’m certainly not okay when violence is [committed] toward innocent bystanders. I hate that, but I think that in this situation, it’s a consequence of years and years and years of incredible pressure and repression. So maybe it can’t be excluded that some jihadi-minded people use this situation in order to fan some feelings. But if you want to fan feelings, you have to go to the center of Urumqi. You don’t do that in a lost place far away in Aksu [prefecture]. It doesn’t look much like a terrorist attack, so why call it a terrorist attack?
RFA: After your article was published, the Chinese government-affiliated newspaper Global Times conducted a survey on whether your visa should be extended or not. And they said 200,000 netizens voted against it. When you saw this number, what did you think?
Gauthier: Well, let me tell you that the Global Times has no reputation at all in the eyes of real professionals. I mean, we know that the Global Times is just a mouthpiece [representing] one tendency inside the Communist Party which is the most radical, nationalist tendency. So if those people want to say anything, they don’t care to go to the length of doing a survey. They just pretend they did it. I don’t even believe that they did it. They’re manipulating the whole public opinion. That’s all. That’s what they’re doing, so I just don’t care about what they say.
RFA: We know that there are some Chinese-paid online commentators. Do you think some of them were involved in that negative opinion?
Gauthier: I think so. I read carefully most of the commentaries, and it seemed to me that a minority of them were paid commentators—people who wrote good French but who were using the kind of ideas and arguments that you find in what you call the 50-cent bunch of people, and they are using basically the same ideas. So I think some of them are paid, yes.
RFA: We know that there is some rising Islamophobia in Europe and Paris in particular following the Paris attacks. And Uyghurs are Muslim people. Do you think it is controversial for you to write such a powerful article to call on China and the international community to differentiate Uyghur attacks from international terrorism?
Gauthier: I had a very strong support from the media community. It was really strong. I didn’t have very [much] from the government, and I think the reason is not because it’s about Muslims. The reason is because they have, they want, they expect, they hope they would have very good relationship with China—political, economical, commercial, etc. That’s the reason. I don’t think it’s the fact that it’s about Muslims has played a role in it. I don’t think so. But maybe in the larger community of French people, one part of the French were less supportive because they perceived the Uyghurs primarily as Muslims. But as I tried to explain in my article, this has little to do with religion. This is classic repression of a majority on a minority. I mean, Tibetans are not Muslim, but they are the same thing, they are repressed as well. They react differently. They burn themselves to death. Sometimes also they do resist in more violent ways. It’s a cultural difference I think, more than a religious difference. So for me, the religious element is not the principal, it’s not the main one. And people who think that it’s about religion, they are wrong.
RFA: Did supporting Uyghurs bring any kind of inconvenience to you and to your life and your family?
Gauthier: Well no, not specifically the fact that it was Uyghurs. I mean, the fact that I was singled out by China, yes. Especially because I had very violent attacks from netizens, probably paid by the Chinese government to come and slander me on my Facebook page or to write about me very horrendous things on Chinese websites and forums. I think that was the main effect that could have impressed me. But it didn’t.
RFA: So we can say that you endured an intensive information battle with China. During these times, what is the point that makes you most comfortable? Is it because of being the voice of suppressed ethnic groups or staying on the opposite side of a dictatorship, or your resolution of holding a journalistic code of ethics?
Gauthier: I think the third one. I’m a journalist. I have been there. I have seen things. You cannot make me say what I haven’t seen, and you cannot make me not say what I have seen. So, you know, it’s my job, it’s what I do. And even China cannot make me change my mind about that. So they should understand that most of the journalists are like-minded. I mean, we don’t like people dictating to us. And fortunately I could visit, so maybe other people are not as fortunate. Because they have more to lose. I can come back to my work, I can come back to my magazine, come back to my home and my family. One thing that I regret is that I cannot do field research any more in China, which was the thing that I enjoyed most. But there are other things that I can do about China, and I will do it.
RFA: Will you write such articles about Uyghurs and about China in the future?
Gauthier: Certainly, certainly. There is not a hint of hesitation.
RFA: How would you describe the current situation in the Uyghur region?
Gauthier: I think it’s very sad, a very difficult situation for people there. If you want to thrive, you have to do compromises with the authorities. And as soon as you begin to compromise, one of the most difficult things is that the authorities request from people who work with them to spy on others. This is the most difficult thing, and if you want to do business or you want to become a public servant or anything, you have to do this. You have to be a traitor with your own people. Or if you don’t do that, you know that you will stay in a situation where the opportunities are very few and you won’t have a good future for you and your family and your children. So I think it’s a very cruel situation.
RFA: And China says that those measures will bring stability for China and the region in many ways. Do you see that this will bring stability, or will it bring more violence against the Chinese government?
Gauthier: I think that the stability is a consequence of using force, of using brute force. And violence also is a consequence of using brute force. So maybe at the beginning it will be more stable, but then at the end it cannot be stable. I don’t see how people will stand this situation in the long term. I don’t think it’s very sustainable.