Racism Where You Can’t See ItSlanted portrayals of Tibetans and Uighurs in the media.
Ignorance and facile thinking lead many to believe that we live in a Manichean world. The Axis of Evil and declarations such as “you’re either with us or against us” are inextricably linked to President Bush. Academics, liberals, and the majority of conservatives have quarreled with this simplistic formulation of international affairs. Many of the people who attack the President for his rhetoric or rail against the “War on Terror” may repeat many of the President’s mistakes when talking about China if they are not careful.Tibetans in western China are in open revolt. Protests have turned violent. Monks and Chinese security personnel have been killed. Business have been looted and burned. In many quarters, the actions of the Tibetans are valorized or condoned, but they are rarely condemned. At worst, they are seen as an inevitable cause of years spent under the suffocating watch of the Chinese bureaucracy.
The province north of Tibet is Xinjiang. This vast and arid land is the traditional homeland of a nomadic tribe called the Uighurs, who are Turkic and Muslim. On January 27, the Chinese police raided an apartment in Urumqi and killed two Uighurs during the subsequent shoot-out. Fifteen Uighurs were arrested and, according to the official report, five police officers were injured. State and Western media asserted that this sting operation had obviated a terrorist attack. Months after the raid and without disclosing any evidence, Chinese authorities claimed that the would-be attackers planned to target the Olympic Games. The sting was hailed as an example of how good police work and intelligence can make the world safer.
There are several similarities between Uighurs and Tibetans. Both are minority groups in western China that have experienced periods of independence and periods under Chinese control in the past. Both Xinjiang and Tibet are massive and resource rich. The Chinese government has encouraged Han migration to both areas and is actively working to modernize the infrastructure of both provinces. The religious and cultural practices of both groups are being smothered.
My purpose here is not to make a moral argument regarding the relative merits of the media portrayal of Uighur, Tibetans or Chinese policies towards these regions. Such a study should be left to those who are more knowledgeable about the region. What I am interested in is why Western views about Uighurs and Tibetans are so radically different. To understand why this is so, I think that it is vital to look at the framing of issues and the leadership of the two groups.
Many Westerners have never heard of the Uighurs. Those who have tend to associate the group with terrorism. Indeed, the most prominent Uighur group agitating for independence, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was categorized by the US as a terrorist organization in 2002. Several Uighurs are currently awaiting trial in Guantanamo Bay. Not surprisingly, any discussion of Uighurs in the Western media starts from terrorism and expands outward. This starting point inevitably leads Uighur issues to be framed in negative terms related to the War on Terror and Islam. Uighurs have become a small part of a supposedly interrelated worldwide assault by Islamofascism (a nonsensical and meaningless term) on the West. The recent raid in Xinjaing was hailed as a blow against extremism in the War on Terror. The Uighurs are not victims—they are dangerous, violent extremists that need to be put under surveillance.
Free Tibet bumper stickers, concerts and advocates can be found in every corner of America. This is because Tibetans are thought to be a religious and peace-loving people. Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama and the Himalayas are some of the most idealized and romanticized images in the West. As such, the uprising in Tibet was viewed through sympathetic eyes. The protests were justified—even if property was destroyed and lives were lost. The death of Tibetan monks was viewed as a tragedy. The world was outraged at the forceful Chinese response to the rioting. International opinion and sympathy lie squarely with the Tibetans and their plight.
Uighurs lack an effective advocate. I do not know the internal structure of Uighur Islam, but I do know that none of the religious leaders in Xinjiang is viewed internationally as messengers of peace and human compassion. The most prominent Uighur organization is the ETIM, yet the majority of Uighurs do not support the ETIM and its goal of establishing an Islamic State in Xinjiang. The lack of an effective advocate and leader with international clout means that elite Uighur opinion is generally excluded from news. When something happens in Xinjiang, it is reported through the eyes of the West and Chinese and in reference to Islam and Terrorism, not in reference to Uighur cultural values and societal opinions.
The Dalai Lama has won the Nobel Peace Prize. He is viewed as a champion of human rights and religious freedom. He meets with heads of state and gives a peaceful, human face to the plight of the Tibetan people. He is an advocate for the Tibetan people, and a very effective one.
Framing and leadership help determine how issues are perceived, interpreted and understood. Frames are necessary, to be sure, but one should think about how issues are presented before accepting any one perspective as trustworthy and complete. My discussion has been more sympathetic to the Uighurs than it has been to the Tibetans and will leave it to the reader to determine why this is so. But I must note that not all Tibetans are noble, nor are all Uighurs terrorists. Moreover, Uighurs and Tibetans should not always be viewed in a completely positive light vis-a-vis the Chinese, although it is tempting for many to do so. No group—Tibetan, Uighur, Chinese, American—is monolithic. Resisting Manichean impulses and understanding how an issue is framed are key steps that need to be taken if one wants to arrive at an independent conclusion.