Twelve people died violently in the far western region of Xinjiang last Tuesday, it seems, but lingering questions about who they were and how exactly they died highlight just how hard it is to unearth the truth about ethnic conflicts in China’s farther reaches.
Both Xinjiang, populated mostly by the restive Muslim Uighur minority, and ethnically Tibetan areas of Southwest China have been rocked by violence in recent months. But the authorities have been largely successful in hiding what has been going on from outsiders.
The first news of new trouble in Xinjiang came from the official Chinese government news agency Xinhua, in a short dispatch that said “violent mobs” had hacked 10 people to death on Tuesday on the outskirts of Kashgar, and that the police had shot two people dead.
When a Bloomberg reporter in Beijing sought details from the Kashgar government press office, an official there said reports of unrest were “baseless assertions.” He hung up when the reporter told him that Xinhua was carrying such a report.
Xinhua said nothing about the ethnic identity of the attackers or the victims.
Uighur exiles in Germany, however, had a different story. Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uighur Congress, told the Associated Press that the attackers had killed seven armed Chinese security officers and that three people had been shot to death. Two others had died, Mr. Raxit said, without explaining how.
A similar fog of conflicting accounts hangs over the spate of self-immolations by Tibetan monks and nuns over the past year in Sichuan; exile Tibetan groups say there have been at least 22 such incidents in protest at harsh Chinese rule. The government acknowledges only half that number.
The obvious way for a foreign reporter to find out what is really happening in Xinjiang or Sichuan would be to go there and talk to people. But that is not as easy as it sounds.
We are allowed to go to Xinjiang, but when I reported from there I found very few Uighurs brave enough to risk the punishment they feared if they were found to have talked to me. Never, in 30 years of reporting from five continents, have I found it so difficult to be a journalist. And after my return to Beijing, I discovered that plainclothes policemen had secretly followed me every step of my weeklong trip.
The government allows journalists to go to Sichuan, too, but police have set up roadblocks around the region where unrest is reportedly greatest, and turned back all the foreign reporters they have found.
A few correspondents have sneaked through the roadblocks, hidden under blankets or otherwise concealed (a shout out to Jon Watts of the Guardian, Tom Lasseter of McClatchy, and Gillian Wong of the AP, who have recently managed to get into closed areas), but they were unable to stay long or to talk to many people. They had to bear in mind that if they were caught, the people with whom they were caught talking would get into unknown amounts of trouble with the authorities.
So the world is heavily dependent for news from such places on government-sanctioned reports from the official Chinese news agency, whose reports seem designed to obfuscate rather than clarify, and on exile groups who clearly have their own political agenda, however well-meaning they are.
Who those 12 people who died in Xinjiang this week actually were, and how they died, possibly only their families know.