by Mary Kay Magistad, The World’s East Asia Correspondent
Follow along with Mary Kay Magistad’s special dispatches on her trip to the Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, in China’s far west and the largely ethnic Tibetan province of Qinghai. Part 2
Sometimes, how a story is told can tell you almost as much as the story itself.
So it was with an explosion that went off at 10:30am on Thursday, August 19, in the town of Aksu, in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, about 400 miles southwest of the capital Urumqi.
Context is everything, here. Xinjiang has for centuries been home to the Turkic Muslim ethnic group called Uighurs – indeed, it is officially called the “Uighur Autonomous Region.” But these days, Uighurs make up barely half of the region’s population. That’s because, for the past 60 years, the Chinese government has encouraged members of the dominant Han Chinese ethnicity to move to Xinjiang to tame and develop China’s wild west. They’ve built factories and farms, cities and industrial parks. And if Uighurs feel resentful that outsiders have taken their land and resources and marginalized many of them economically – there are also thousands of Chinese troops and military police in the region to keep them in line. Given all this, some Uighurs still pine for the brief period in the 1940s when Xinjiang was its own Soviet-backed country, East Turkestan.
“Despite our best wishes (separatists) have never stopped their attempts to separate Xinjiang from the rest of China,” Xinjiang governor Nur Bekri told a group of us visiting foreign journalists yesterday. “And I believe we face a long-term, and fierce and very complicated struggle in Xinjiang for this purpose.”
While Bekri was still speaking, Xinhua – the official Chinese news agency – snapped its first news flash on the Aksu explosion. Details were sketchy, other than that seven people had been killed and 14 wounded, and a suspect had been arrested. So our Foreign Ministry faciliators and their local Xinjiang counterparts quickly arranged a news conference for us.
And there, it turned out that details were still sketchy. Ms. Hou Hanmin, the spokesperson for the Xinjiang government, said she’d been in touch by phone with the police in Aksu, but she’d neglected to ask the name, age, or gender of the suspect. She had, however, determined that the suspect was a Uighur. She also said that those killed and injured were Uighur, too, and that the suspect had also been injured and was now detained.
Ms. Hou also said the explosion had been intentional — the police had told her so. But, when pressed, she didn’t know what the evidence was to support this conclusion. She admitted she had no details on what had exploded, or how, or in what circumstances, which led some of us to think there was still a chance it could have been an accidental explosion. Ms. Hou had other thoughts.
“The hostile elements are always there – in the past, in the present, and they will be there in the future,” she said. ”They are not targeted at one particular ethnic group, because all the injured people are ethnic minorities, so they are the common enemy of the people of Xinjiang.”
China correspondents both in our group in Xinjiang and back in Beijing and Hong Kong jumped on the story. One called the Aksu Public Security Bureau, where an unnamed woman denied the blast had even happened. “We in public security have never made such an announcement,” she said. “This is a fabrication. No such thing has ever happened here. It is nothing more than a rumor which has been spread by somebody. The flabergasted reporter pointed out that Xinhua, the official government news agency, had already run several updates to the story. The woman was dismissive. “It is not true even though it is reported by Xinhua. It will not be true unless the public security bureaus or our official website makes it public.”
Pause to appreciate this interesting definition of reality. Ok, moving on….
What the Aksu Public Security Department knew early and didn’t say until later, the reason they were convinced this was an intentional attack – was that the suspect, the Uighur driver of a three-wheeled vehicle – common in rural areas – threw what they’re calling a bomb at a group of 15 Uighur law enforcement personnel – seen to be doing the Chinese government’s work. Chinese military police and other government officials have been targeted in Xinjiang before, by Uighurs who see them as a source and symbol of their oppression.
Such sentiments led last year to violent riots in the capital Urumqi, which killed at least 197 people, most of them Han Chinese. In response, thousands of extra troops and military police poured into Xinjiang, and a crackdown on Uighurs began – not just on those who rioted, but even on those who have spilled their grievances online or to foreign journalists. One such Uighur got a 15-year prison sentence.
And yet, Xinjiang Governor Nur Bekri – himself a Uighur – proclaimed to us in his news briefing that Xinjiang welcomes foreign journalists to visit every corner of Xinjiang, to move freely, talk to people on the ground and understand the ‘real situation’ for ourselves.
If only it were that easy.
Read Mary Kay Magistad’s first dispatch in our special series
More from The World’s Mary Kay Magistad