Some Chinese Question Government's Finger Pointing

The Chinese government's boilerplate response to the several incidents of unrest in the country: foreign agitators were behind the violence. But among well-informed citizens this explanation appears to be losing traction.

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And let's go now to Myanmar's neighbor, China, where some propaganda has not worked out as well as Chinese officials might've hoped. Last month, officials said that foreign agitators were behind ethnic violence in the country's far west. But this claim appears to be losing traction among well-informed citizens and even within the government itself. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN: China's government has denied from the outset that public dissatisfaction with its policies played any role in the July 5th riots. Instead, it insists that Uyghur exile Rebiya Kadir masterminded the violence. In a televised speech two days later, Xinjiang party chief Wang Lequan laid out a familiar formula.

Mr. WANG LEQUAN (Chief, Xinjiang Communist Party of China): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Among those arrested were some students who took part in the demonstration and disturbances, he said. The vast majority of these young people did not know the truth. They were instigated and duped.

But why can't officials just tell people the truth beforehand so that they can't be duped, asked a recent commentary by the official Xinhua News Agency. It was one of several recent articles in the state-run press that criticized the government's all-too-common explanation. There are also signs that while denying its policies are at fault, Beijing is looking for ways to fix them. The State Ethnic Affairs Commission recently announced funding for research into poverty and social problems in minority regions, including Xinjiang. One of the few public voices to weigh in on the riots from inside Xinjiang belongs to Harack Niaz(ph), a Uighur freelance journalist based in the regional capital of Urumqi.

Mr. HARACK NIAZ (Freelance Journalist): (Through translator) Such antagonism and revenge killings among ethnic groups has not been seen in the past 60 years. You have to think about the deeper causes. Simply blaming it on a few foreign and domestic agitators will not convince most ordinary folks.

KUHN: Niaz argues that Uighur separatists calling for independence and Islamist militants preaching holy war are nothing new. But government policies have made some areas particularly fertile ground in which these ideas have taken root. Southern Xinjiang has seen the most unrest, he says, because it has not benefited from the same economic reform measures as the rest of the country has. For example, he points to agriculture.

Mr. NIAZ: (Through translator) Although land dominantly belongs to the farmers, in southern Xinjiang, you plant what your county or township's party secretary tells you to. If he says plant cotton, you can't plant wheat. If he says plant wheat, you can't plant cotton. After a decade or two of these policies, southern Xinjiang farmers have not been able to get rich.

KUHN: Public administration expert Ju Li Jah(ph) at the National School of Administration in Beijing says that case studies of recent civil unrest in China show a clear pattern.

Professor JU LI JAH (Public Administration Expert, National School of Administration, Beijing): (Through translator) Behind any such incident of unrest is a clash of interests. The reason people feel resentful and indignant is to a considerable extent because the government's administrative behavior or commercial activities have hurt citizens' individual interests.

KUHN: With more than 300 million people online, Chinese are better informed than ever, Ju says. They know where their social and economic interests lie, and they're not easily in sighted or duped. To say that they are duped is to insult their intelligence, critics say. Actually, says Ju Li Jah, it's worse than that.

Prof. JU: (Through translator) It's not that these leaders underestimate citizen's intelligence, it's that the leaders' own intelligence is very low. We should ask how these people got to be public servants in the first place.

KUHN: Ju says that the central government is increasingly holding local officials to account for their failures to properly handle unrest, and that local officials can no longer hide behind the outside agitator's formula. But it's significant that very few Chinese scholars or journalists have applied their criticism of the formula to the case of Xinjiang. As for Professor Ju, he says that Xinjiang is clearly a case of separatism and a political incident. And that, he says, makes it different from ordinary incidents of unrest.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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