Media must stop exacerbating ethnic tensions in China

By WENYAN DENG ’15

Staff Writer

The mass stabbing attack at the Kunming Railway Station in China’s Yunnan Province on March 1 once again raised the barely-subsided issue of Uighur-Han ethnic conflicts. The attack left 29 civilians dead and more than 140 others injured. Among the eight perpetrators, four were shot dead during the attack. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, however, the focus on Internet forums has been far from a constructive discussion of the conflict. Instead, there has been much finger-pointing and blaming between those on the “side” of the Han Chinese and those on the “side” of the Uighers, Tibetans and even the Taiwanese. Comments often reflect a disheartening and very worrying tendency of resorting to irrational criticisms of opponents, which may well exacerbate ethnic tensions and lead Xinjiang or Tibet to become China’s Chechnya, if they aren’t already.

Taking a neutral position with respect to the ensuing conflict is certainly difficult for those who have lost family in the recent attack or for those who have been subjected to decades of cultural suppression. However, these ethnic and socio-political tensions are not going to be solved by destructive criticism or mutual blaming. Furthermore, the involvement of Western media as well as the Chinese media has only worsened these tensions. The response of many international media reports concerning the events show a double standard: much of the media’s focus has been on the Chinese government’s heavy-handed measures in Xinjiang at a time when the real focus should be on condemning the terrorist attack itself.

With China’s recent historical experience with near-colonial occupation and decades of propaganda against Western imperialism, many Han Chinese naturally see a bias in Western media reports. Many Chinese see Western criticism against acts of terror conducted by ethnic minorities in China as significantly less severe than the Western criticism against acts of terror conducted in Western countries. Some Chinese also question why reporting on the Kunming incident focuses so much on Chinese suppression of Xinjiang when reporting on terrorist attacks in the West sometimes doesn’t even mention past U.S. policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. This is not to deny that there are also many articles on U.S. policies encouraging anti-American sentiments. However, in comparing the ratio of articles encouraging anti-American sentiments among all the articles that discuss terrorism to the ratio of reports encouraging anti-Chinese sentiments among all the articles discussing Xinjiang and Tibet-related topics, the former is dwarfed.

At the same time, media sponsored by the Chinese government and many comments left by pro-Han Chinese commentators have been irresponsible. Undeniably, there are deep socio-political sentiments behind the Kunming railway station attack, and the best way to address these socio-economic and political problems is to open discussions about them. However, the police issued harsh warnings less than a week after the attack to China’s most outspoken micro-bloggers after bloggers mentioned some potential socio-political reasons behind the attack. Accusing these micro-bloggers of “mixing the black with the white,” a Chinese expression that means one is ignoring the facts, the police’s message cautioned public figures to be “responsible for what they say.” Government monitors have also erased what they consider to be harmful information and inflammatory comments.

More worrying still is the failure of many ethnic Han Chinese to recognize the grievances of the Uighur and Tibetan peoples. Comments on various articles from publications ranging from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, from the Washington Post to China’s micro-blogs, reflect a tendency to indiscriminately blame the Uighurs. These comments describe the Uighurs as “ungrateful” after years of “enjoying preferential policies,” like being able to have more than one child.

The following comment from a Los Angeles Times article best represents the severity of this problem: “The Chinese government gives Uighurs so many preferential policies. Those people pay less tax, get much lower scores for college entrance (if the college entrance exams pass line is 600 for Han people, then those minorities only need 300 but still 90 percent of them failed), some lazybones still feel unsatisfied—they want more. If you live in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, you can see so many Uighurs thefts. Whom should be blamed? The Chinese government? That’s ridiculous.” Such aggravating comments are even more prevalent on Chinese social media sites. Rather than erasing comments that expose the real socio-political problems, the Chinese government should be targeting irresponsible commenters before ethnic tensions spiral out of control.

As China becomes a rising world power, both its internal socio-economic issues and its external relations with other countries are important to maintaining international peace and stability. For college students who aspire to be leaders of tomorrow, a complete understanding of the causes and the development of this ethnic conflict allows us to keep an open mind and avoid any one-sided judgements or comments that may aggravate the already strained situation.

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