Lessons from Xinjiang: the Media

Written by Julen Madariaga on August 4th, 2009

XJTV Have you been watching Xinjiang TV these days? I am a fan. It’s the new Love TV, a 24-7 concentrate of all the corniest efforts by the Chinese official media to promote harmony after the events of 5th July. Smiling kids, flowery dances, long meetings of interethnic neighbour associations discussing love and togetherness. Best served with tequila, lemon, and a grain of salt.

But seriously. It’s been a month since the events of Urumqi, and it feels like there hasn’t been much done in the way of analysis. All the channels of the media were red hot for a week, but they cooled down as soon as the blood dried on the streets, and no new insights are forthcoming. Too soon the debate has been hijacked by unproven claims of opportunists like Kadeer, and the predictable responses from China. The peace loving Uyghurs and Han who lost their lives in Urumqi deserve better.

So yes, I am consciously watching XJTV, and I suggest you do the same. For lack of anything better and in protest against the rest of the media establishment, both Chinese and foreign. Because no matter how awkward XJTV’s efforts might seem, at least this TV station is doing its job.

The events of Xinjiang are more important than the bland Summer coverage would lead us to imagine. It is probably the most deadly single political riot that has happened in China since Tiananmen 1989. It is also the only major case of social unrest where the international press has been granted permission to report from the ground. And there are important lessons to draw from the experience, particularly in the fields of 1- Media and 2- China’s policy.

The Chinese Media

I am and I will always be against State-controlled media, and every person I respect here, some CPC members included, agrees with my point of view: without the freedom to blame, all comment is meaningless.

But precisely because we don’t believe in that media, we don’t expect too much from them. After all, it is not the fault of the writers or editors if they live in such a system, not everyone can be a hero. From this relative point of view, we can say that the Chinese media – or the CPC, which is the same in this case - has done a good job.

Indeed, one interesting phenomenon in the aftermath of the July 5th events is the media’s role in calming things down on the Han side. We made fun of all those silly heart warming articles, but probably the love talk was crucial at a moment where ethnic feelings were getting out of control. How many times in the World have you seen interethnic clashes* killing more than a hundred to simply peter out in 2 days with no more than moderate force applied by the State?

By choosing to focus on the positive, turning the blame on external elements and being loyal to the principle of harmony, the Chinese media did a valuable service to their country and probably avoided many more deaths. This might seem obvious now with hindsight, but it might have been just as easy for them to try to appeal to the pride of the Han and disaster would have ensued.

The Free World Media

But what about the media from the free World?

The Xinjiang events were of particular interest for many of us following the debate of anti-China bias in the Western media. In the highest point of the discussion, after the Tibet 2008 events,  the Western media always had the point that, since they had been banned from the area, they couldn’t be held accountable for inaccuracies in their reporting. Now we have the first major riot where this argument is not valid. The time is to evaluate the results. How well have they fared?

In my opinion, it has been disappointing, at least for two reasons.

1- In a large part of the media there was a clear prejudice against the Han and against the authorities. Not all were as extreme or ignorant as this example, but the principle was clear: their mission was to witness how inhuman the Chinese system is. Even if some of them later moderated their reports, the harm was already done, and when travelling in Europe mid-July I found it a common opinion that “China is slaughtering its minorities again”.

2- Fortunately, free media IS to some extent free and diverse, and we have seen some examples of fair reporting from the ground. In particular I was following the Telegraph journalist Peter Foster, who did a great job of reporting honestly what he saw. And then, I got to this article, only 4 days after the events, and to my despair he announces that he leaves on holidays. Like blogger B&W Cat noted, almost all the others soon followed suit and, to this day, nobody has told us what really happened in Xinjiang.

In the meantime, Xinhua and the others stayed at their posts, showing the Chinese and the World who really cares about Xinjiang, and who really cares about China.

Some Conclusions

There is something very wrong with the World media, and it is something much deeper than a anti- or pro- China stance. It has to do more in my opinion with how it is organized. Remember the line:

By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

It is a pleasure to read Adam Smith and imagine that, indeed, the invisible hand is working every day to make our lives better. And yet, this example has made clear that if there is one industry were the hand cannot work it is the media. That is, of course, unless we accept that its role is to produce “the truths we like to hear” in the same way as the role of Apple is to produce computers we like to use.

Because that is exactly the problem. The minute the media sees that there are no obvious CPC crimes, that the police is handling the situation well, and that actually a communist authoritarian regime sometimes does things better than a democracy, this is not interesting. It is not even about political lobbies or advertising companies’ pressure, it is simply that most readers don’t like it. It is more comfortable to live with their solid categories, Islamism bad, communism bad, democracy good. And the invisible hand says: journalist shut up.

There is a lot of talk on the internet about the future of traditional newspapers, and many are analyzing the reasons for their demise. Well, how about this one:

There has been a major political riot, the most deadly in 20 years in the most important rising country in the international scene, and the media has still not even attempted to explain the reasons behind the events, instead working full-time as a mouthpiece for a self-appointed leader in Washington with very dubious legitimacy, and who might possibly be connected with the terrorist group who has organized the killings of more than 100 people.**

I am not so idealistic to think that internet and blogs are going to change the situation. The information lobby will always be powerful, whatever the shape it takes, and in the end the mainstream reader will always read what he wants to read.

For the people who care, the only hope, now as always, is in diversity. And fortunately the internet works in the right direction for this. Visit this link for just one example of how a blog can provide you –if you take the time to read carefully- with better commentary than your Sunday paper.

* Interethnic clashes:  whether or not the initial violence was organized by terrorist elements, by the time the Han mobs went out with bats it clearly became an interethnic clash.

** More about this upcoming.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Aug

    I don’t know enough about the situation or the reporting to agree or disagree with you, but I think I know great writing and analysis and this is it. Kudos.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Aug

    As far as the Chinese media, I don’t think you can fully say they have done their job as far as xinjiang is concerned. You go surprisingly easy on them even by the low standard you set. I watched the same xinjiang tv and did not see a single story about either Shaoguan or the roving Han mobs in Urumqi. To the minorities of xinjiang that make up a majority of the population there, this can hardly be considered fair, and will reinforce the notion of prejudice against them from government and Han. The truth of events (or wild rumours) will filter down to the man on the street eventually and I’m afraid violence may well occur again in the future as no one (han, uyghurs, media or government) publicly faces up to the truth of the situation in xinjiang and these events in particular.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Aug

    @Dan - Thanks, I am flattered, especially coming from you. Let me put it this way: you must be doing some really good stuff for me to actively follow a blog about law… If it weren’t for CLB I wouldn’t even know the basics in the field, kudos for making the world a more legal place!

    @komoroka - Actually I agree with your remark. I am not seriously trying to judge the Chinese Media by Western standars. On the contrary, my message is that Chinese and Western media are not comparable. One is just an instrument of the state and another is supposedly the Free World Media. If I have to measure them by the same standards then forget about it. I’d rather stick to blogs and books.

    And yes, I have to agree XJTV was not really fair in many ways. But at that point the key was to calm things down, and in the emergency peace was more important than fairness. Of course now they (the CPC) will need to do a lot more than children dances if they want to fix the situation. They need to asses and rethink their policy.

    I hope I will have the time to write about that this week. In the meantime please do not watch too much XJTV, long exposure can produce brain damage :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Aug

    Good post.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Aug

    I totally agree with your analysis of western media : we want to keep things simple : democracy = good. all others = evil, period.
    Western media made so many inaccuracies in reporting Chinese event, and is still continuing even after being confronted by numerous example. As they show no remorse to those “mistakes”, it clearly indicates an unconsciuous bias against Chinese “regime”. Western media are prisonners of “politically correctness” or “pensée unique”, not completely unrelated to “harmonized” chinese state media.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Aug

    Hello uln,I have a few observations.

    Am I correctly interpreting your post in saying that you seem at least in part to be persuaded that Rebiya Kadeer instigated the riots? I ask because you say that the Chinese media did a “valuable service” by blaming “external elements.” I’m not sure such an observation constitutes a personal endorsement of the idea that Kadeer organized and ordered the riots or if you were merely judging the Chinese media by special standards considering it’s for the most part a state entity (which you implied in a comment above).

    In my opinion, I think it’s questionable to call the Chinese media’s fingerpointing at Kadeer a “valuable service” if we explore the question over whether or not Kadeer really played a role in the riots. Beyond a single phone call to her brother we have yet to be presented with any substantial evidence that Kadeer was a proactive leader and instigator of the violence. Until the Chinese government openly presents the international community with unequivocal evidence that Kadeer was, and I quote, the “mastermind” behind the unrest it’s irresponsible for any media outlet, Chinese or Western, to make such an accusation, and it’s irresponsible for us, the consumers of this media, to accept that allegation without skepticism.

    I say that because, frankly, I agree with your criticisms of the Western media. As an amateur Xinjiang watcher I’ve been extremely frustrated with the way Western media has covered events and absolutely flabbergasted by the way Uyghur diasporic groups have handled the situation. I absolutely agree that this is a textbook situation where we can see, explore, and analyze the bare-faced biases of the Western media. And one of the themes of your post is that we shouldn’t swallow what CNN or the NYT tells us whole just because it’s the “Free Media.”

    However, I think you’re overcompensating, in a word. The Free Media is supposed to be “free,” you say, and you question that. And you also say that everyone has “low expectations” vis-a-vis the Chinese media. But I think the combination of these two is leading you to give the Chinese media way more credit that it deserves.

    The issue is whether or not you think the media is supposed to strive to share facts, and how much of a role the media played in calming Urumqi. I think the media is supposed to strive towards the unbiased sharing of facts, it’s a Platonian ideal, never to be attained, but always to be striven for. If you - we, actually - fault the Western media for failing in that regard, you should in all fairness make the same observations about the Chinese media. If Western media is irresponsibly portraying the riots as another classic case of Communist oppression for the sake of gaining profits, you should also say that the hasty and unpersuasive blaming of Rebiya Kadeer of being some sort of James Bond villain style “mastermind” of the riots is an irresponsible portrayal by a state-manipulated organ pursuing a political agenda.

    I don’t think the media is responsible for the calm in Urumqi. Hardly anyone takes the media seriously in that area, this was a running theme way before the riots happened. Your theory that the flowery news stories lead to greater calm is weak because the underlying assumption is that these stories successfully reached out to Uyghurs because Uyghur youths where the ones carrying out the violence. I hate going anecdotal, but honestly, the Uyghur distrust of state media is deep, comprehensive, and daunting. No Uyghur youths decided against going out on June 6 and rampaging because of nice news stories. I’ll tell you the real reasons. It’s because of the army and the police.

    As much as it makes me cringe to say this (because of my own personal biases, I admit them!), the police handled the Urumqi situation well. Simultaneously, they exercised restrain, leading to only one incidence where armed forces shot Uyghurs (arguably in defense), and they appeared in such vast and overwhelming numbers that any Uyghurs planning on prolonging the violence thought twice - or three times, even. It was “shock and awe” successfully executed in riot-management. Urumqi “calmed” so quickly *not* because the laughable (even in your own characterization) flowery media blitz, but because of a rapid, overwhelming, and yes! restrained military response that was armed with lessons from the Tibetan 2008 unrest. The armed police showed up in enough numbers to quell violence but also showed enough restraint so as to avoid giving Uyghurs an excuse to flare up again (which probably would have happened if the police opened fire or something).

    I’m basically writing a blog post here, but here’s the punch line - while the Western media is wrong for its inaccurate portrayals of the police response to the riots, the Chinese media is wrong for its inaccurate (and agenda-motivated) portrayal of Kadeer as “the mastermind,” unless you believe that Western media has to be held to standard journalism ethics and the Chinese media doesn’t (I think it does). The riots weren’t caused by Kadeer, or outside elements, they were caused by systemic and longstanding grievances the Uyghurs have felt as a result of ethnic polices in the region. And what the Chinese government, the Chinese media, and the Western media should be doing is exploring the riots as a sociological and anthropological event, but the government isn’t doing that because it doesn’t want to even consider that its policy is received coldly, the Chinese media isn’t doing that because it’s a tool of the government, and the Western media isn’t doing that because it isn’t profitable.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Stone Reply:

    I agree with you for the most part. However, I guess you forgot to mention the longstanding grievances that the Han Chinese also felt as a result of the ethnic policies in the country. All the perks, in forms of child birth, education, employment quota and most importantly the criminal prosecution have literally segregated the Uighurs and Han mentally. The underlying difference lies in the cultures of both. Han can tough it out and focus on improving economic life, while Uighurs are unwilling to, when both are feeling tremendous grievances. Assuming you are one of those who do not speak/read/write English at all. How do you embrace the social/economical opportunities in the US? Even if you could, the odd is much smaller than a comparable person with much superior English capability. I don’t think you can deny that.

    Back to the issue of media, I think we are taking a one-way road in a wrong direction, if we continue to argue what we can perceive from the media. The Western media is symbolic to Freedom media, because the journalists are ordinary people who can freely disseminate their opinions in the public domains without political interference. However, as an ordinary people, are we also able to describe any incidents in a purely subjective manner? Instead of challenging the fairness of the media, I think it is more meaningful to gauge our personal subjectivity.

    Astonishing in this instance, the ordinary people (including Porfiriy) tend to ignore the feelings of the vast majority of the victims, Han Chinese. When you times 90% by 1.3 billion, the significance seems not negligible. However, when you come to the issue of subjectivity, you simply presume that those people are brain washed and not accountable. No matter what, you have to admit that those Han Chinese are a great step closer to the incidents. They are not the government, but they are blood-fresh people like you and me.

    Ask around your Chinese colleagues or friends. Hear their stories. The big issue is not the media, but a plain ignorance of the values and beliefs of over 1 billion population. It is like wiping out the Declaration of Independence with your pencil-head eraser, pretending that no one actually drafted it, saw it, and live for it.

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Aug

    One problem I have is with those who say, “yes well we know Chinese state TV is propaganda so we don’t take it seriously, but western media is supposed to be neutral and should be held to a higher standard.” frankly, this is nonsense and the kind of comment made by nationalist apologists.

    To the vast majority of Chinese, state TV is their major news source and they place in it the same trust that we westerners have to put in CNN, BBC, etc. The idea that all Chinese watch state TV with a critical, knowing eye is just false. I am just back from Xinjiang, I found that for most people I spoke to, their views on the riots came either from rumours they had picked up or from what they had seen in the (state) media.

    As such, all media should be help to the same standard and with this in mind western media is doing a very good, although sometimes flawed, job of reporting on Xinjiang, while Chinese Tv has not been so good and has not given as many alternative perspectives. Any critical weighting based on concepts of “west” and “china” is just ignoring the problem.

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Aug
    WD Lee

    Hi TommyDF,
    Seems you have better knowledge about the riots than the Xinjiang local people you spoke to. What is the source of your information to determine the western media is doing “a very good job of reporting on Xinjiang?” Western media?

    [Reply to this comment]

    TommyDF Reply:

    HI WD

    I express in my post no knowledge of the riots. My observations, in line with the theme of this post, are solely about media coverage and, having observed both “western” and chinese media coverage, I come to the conclusion that the “western” media is doing a better job in comparison. This isn’t about who produced the “correct” version of events, but who provided the “best” version of events. I am sure I could quantify this with examples if absolutely necessary, but from the tone of your reply, I am not sure it would make any difference.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Yes Reply:

    Actually, why don’t you come up with some examples.

    Better yet, I am interested to see exactly why do you believe how one version is “better” than another. How do you define a “good job” when it comes to journalism?

    [Reply to this comment]

    Stone Reply:

    Let me try to highlight one example, although it works oppositely as what TommyDF would have expected.

    No Western media has ever investigated the social problems in the Uighuer residence areas in other major cities of China. Simple questions are: 1), why can Uighuers carry large knives without prosecution while Han Chinese cannot? 2), why few Han Chinese people would like to step into Uighuer’s neighborhood in the night? 3), why Han Chinese dare not to confront with Uighuers even if they saw those the Uighuers are picking their wallets? Seemingly unrelated to the Xinjiang incident, they are part of the answer to understand why the two ethnic groups ended up bursting out their grievances with a loss of nearly 200 lives.

    While the Chinese media is politically restrained from such investigations, what the Western media have done instead? For ordinary Chinese, they don’t need the State media to figure these questions out, since they have real-life experiences. Then, where is the Western media? Yes, we enjoy freedom. But sometimes, we have to admit that our freedom is compromised thanks to a freely adjusted gauge in face of a solid appearance of incidents.

    [Reply to this comment]

  9. Aug
    Western Educated Chinese

    Enough is debated about this subject. Enough abuse is being tolerated by Chinese & all those of us in the non Caucasian world. Formerly I do share a great deal of goodwill to the West but all this is dead. I have only one wish:exterminate the West & reduce its voices to one proportionate to its size relative to its population ratio. East is East & West is West. We ain’t gonna be friends in another thousand years!

    [Reply to this comment]

  10. Aug

    I doubt most journalists are consciously playing up the “Communist police crackdown” angle just to make the readers happy though. As seen in the Tibetan example, most reporters would brush off the few factual errors as the odd unintentional mistake that will inevitably be missed by careless editors, and deny that there was any media bias in the first place. More incriminating evidence can be seen in the word choices of the articles, the facts they present vs. the facts they omit, and like Uln said, the tendency to give uninformed readers the impression that “China is slaughtering its minorities again”.

    Dismiss the old cant about the “liberal media” if you will, but I think it’s more likely that journalists, brought up with Western democratic values, tend to instinctively distrust authority, especially unchallenged ones such as the CCP. They’re probably more sympathetic toward the underdog, in this case, the Uyghurs, than the Han Chinese, who are in a position of power. The bias might have slipped out subconsciously, or maybe they justified it in their minds thinking that the Chinese media will be more than sufficient to present the Han view, so the Uyghurs would need their help a lot more. Thus they’d try much harder to show Uyghur voices rather than Han. That would make them not so much anti-China as anti-strongmen.

    But the Chinese state media is so bad at making itself credible in the rest of the world that few people really care what the Han Chinese say anymore.

    [Reply to this comment]

  11. Aug
    Jack Uphill

    I think we are limiting ourselves when making the comparison strictly between Chinese and Western media. This is just from my memory of coverage of weeks before and a cursory scan of their sites, but Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera also seemed to reflect the narrative that Western media had. Al-Jazeera especially is seen as a media source that provides a viewpoint alternate from that of the West. Shouldn’t their coverage also be examined?

    [Reply to this comment]

  12. Aug

    China never went to promote ethnic separatism in another country. Western countries think it is a good idea to come to China to promote ethnic separatism. Chinese media never purposefully portrayed Western countries in a negative light at the expense of factuality and objectivity. Western media have been consistent in going out of the way to demonize China whenever they have the opportunity. China is still weak. The West is powerful. In this world, might is right. Such is the reality. The only way for China to stop being bullied all the time is to get strong.

    [Reply to this comment]

  13. Aug

    Despite the repeated ‘inaccuracies’ of Western Media nobody seems to be accountable for their ‘mistakes.’ Their governments doesn’t seem to care in fact by Calf congresswoman Pelosi’s statement after the 7/5 massacre seems to be for the ‘oppressed’ Uyghurs than the 200+ people who are killed. Since the government turns a blind eye towards these false propaganda reporting, we might as well call them state sanctioned media.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Yes Reply:


    In the times of war there is no doubt what so ever that the Western media is the engine of the government. Iraq war is the perfect example, where US government worked harder than the Chinese government in restricting information to the point that lots of foreign reporters died doing their jobs not at the hands of terrorists but at “friendly fire” by the US military. If that is not a threat to free speech what is? When was the last time you hear a foreign journalist getting killed reporting in China?

    [Reply to this comment]

  14. Aug

    Hi, thanks for comments. Many of the good points you note I address in the series of posts I am preparing on the subject, they will all come out between this week and the next.

    Which is the reason why I don’t have the time to answer one by one your comments (I also have a day job) But I will come back when I finish my writing. thanks again!

    [Reply to this comment]

  15. Aug

    Very good post. However, your cynic attitude toward the “love stories” made me sad. Have you not be moved by at least some of them? Like all the heroic act of people protecting others at the risk of their own life?

    Here is the link of a really moving love story. Please have a look, and see how you like it:


    [Reply to this comment]

  16. Aug

    Please see the video clips below. Use your discretion. Let’s discuss the legitimacy of the “protest”



    [Reply to this comment]

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