The latest unrest in China has turned the world’s attention (well, that portion of the world not watching Michael Jackson’s memorial service) to Urumqi, a heretofore obscure city in western Xinjiang province. To get a better sense of the region and the roots of the conflict, I spoke to Rob Gifford, an NPR correspondent who spent six years stationed in Beijing and wrote the excellent China Road, an account of his trip from Shanghai through Urumqi and to the Kazakhstan border.
The first thing to understand about Urumqi, Gifford notes, is that it’s been utterly transformed over the past two decades. When he first traveled there in the late 1980s, it was still a dusty frontier town, its irrelevance exemplified by its status as the Asian city furthest from an ocean. But when he returned in 2002, he said, “Basically, Urumqi had become Los Angeles.”
The change was wrought by massive investment from the Chinese government, which had settled on a new approach to incorporate Xinjiang into the rest of the nation. After first taking over the province in the eighteenth century, China tried two strategies—first, brute force; second, mass migration of ethnic Han from the east—to overwhelm the native, ethnically and culturally diverse Uighur population, which didn’t look kindly upon what it viewed as occupation. (The situation in Xinjiang is often analogized to Tibet.) But while Han now outnumber Uighurs in Urumqi, more recently, Gifford said, the strategy has been to “buy off” the Uighur population—and to convince the next generation that their interests are tied to the broader nation’s economic growth: “They need to change the younger population into Chinese people before they become indoctrinated by the anger of the Uighur side.”
Readers of Western press coverage may have noted that many reporters are relying on Xinhua, China’s state news agency, for basic facts about the number of dead or injured. While Xinhua’s reports often carry a lot of spin and an embrace of the government’s narrative, their facts are mostly accurate, Gifford said.
Another media-related tidbit: While initial Western accounts were written from Beijing, the second-day stories are datelined Urumqi. As The New York Times explained today, foreign journalists were actually invited to the provincial capital by China’s central government, which even arranged for discount hotel rooms. Gifford said he was “quite surprised” by that move, but took it as further evidence that, for all its efforts to control communication, the “Chinese government is trying to be more open.” “They think they’ve got something to say,” he said—a belief fostered by the real infrastructure improvements that the government’s money has made possible.
But the government’s media strategy may have already backfired, producing images that evoke the Tiananmen Square crackdown—and that testify to what Gifford called “an ethnic, religious, historical tension that you can’t just get rid of.”