While recent news has discovered the existence of Yazidi in Iraq, a religious minority with rather odd beliefs, under threat by Islamic extremists trying to take control of the country. Reporters and cameraman are everywhere covering the plight of Yazidi refugees, and no stone is left unturned to cover the story.
But such free exercise of media coverage is not to be found in China, which tightly controls any news that suggests that all is not peaceable. Far from the major cities on the east coast, restive provinces in the west their large ethnic minorities continue to smolder, virtually unnoticed by the outside world. While the plight of Tibet, which was essentially a client state of China for centuries until it proclaimed its independence for a forty-year period until its violent incorporation into China by the Communists in 1951, is well known thanks its exiled “ambassador,” the Dalai Lama.
Less well known is the on-going unrest and violence in the so-called “autonomous” province of Xinjiang, a mostly desert landscape surrounded by mountains originally inhabited by a Turkic people known as the Uighur, who practice a version of Sunni Islam. The Chinese ethnic Han have immigrated into the region over the past decades, so that there is now virtual parity in population between the two groups. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Chinese government regards the Uighur as a threat to domestic tranquility, and recent violence in Xinjiang has been blamed on the emergence of an Islamic-inspired insurgency in the region.
While China considers the province as part of its ancient territory, Uighur separatists call it East Turkestan. Originally backed by the Soviet Union during tensions between it and China, since 1996 Islamic separatism has been an ongoing, if largely ignored by the West, conflict. The Uighurs are far from united in the quest for independence, but those who China regards as Islamic extremists seem to be inspired by recent uprisings in other parts of the Islamic world. In the past year, one oasis city bordering Pakistan, a recent violent confrontation between “protesters” and Chinese police erupted, although details were extremely sketchy. Chinese authorities claimed that an Islamic “gang” armed with knives attacked a police station and government buildings, killing dozens of ethnic Han. Initial government reports merely stated that the perpetrators were killed by police.
Later, Chinese authorities “admitted” that as many as sixty Uighurs were shot and killed by police. However, witnesses claimed that Chinese police instigated the violence by their “heavy-handed” repression of Islamic Ramadan “festivities,” sparking mass protests. The holiday is supposed to require Muslims from having evil thoughts or deeds for a month, although one wonders if this were true why “heavy-handed” measures were thought by the Chinese to be required—especially if Chinese claims concerning “terrorist” acts were true. This past June nine Uighurs who participated in the violence were sentenced to death for “terrorism.”
Yet it is difficult to discern what is really happening in the ethnic minority centers in China, since it is impossible to obtain independent media verification. Chinese paramilitary routinely seal-off restive areas from prying foreign eyes, and Beijing’s controlled of the media goes so far as to completely disrupt Internet and mobile phone service. Not surprisingly, Chinese media relies less on facts than on government-supplied propaganda—extremely useful in “demonizing” minority opponents of the regime in the eyes of the Han majority. Nevertheless, as we have seen throughout the Islamic world, violence—especially by jihadists and religious extremists—is an everyday occurrence, and “heavy-handed” measures might seem “necessary” to quell it.
What all of this is really telling us is that China is a far from a free, open society—in that regard not much better than North Korea. Obviously it would be extremely embarrassing to the Beijing government if CNN reporters and cameramen had free access to the areas where the real “news” is happening in the country. China is clearly not a country as “orderly” as it likes the world to believe.