Portraying the Xinjiang Attack: Ethnic Conflict or Terrorism?

On April 23, 15 police officers and social workers were killed violently in a fight with 14 criminal gangsters, in a far western region of China that has been troubled with ethnic conflicts and social instability for a long time. Local officials say the gangsters herded the workers at sword point into a house and set the building on fire, then watched them burn. Further investigation found propaganda videos, weapons and flags from a separatist group originated in Xinjiang in the attackers' house, but no foreign links to the violence were identified.

Suspects have been captured, and diverging concerns have been raised about the causes of the attack. Western media has covered the attack more as a social crisis rooted in the ethnic conflict in Xinjiang, while Chinese officials have emphasized that it was a terrorist attack. The difference in coverage can be explained by history, culture and the current situation in Xinjiang as well as by translation issues, path dependence and stereotypes in Western media coverage of the region.

Western media and politicians tend to portray the attack as if it were nothing different from the attacks in 2009 and 2011 when conflicts occurred between the Han, the immigrated but major ethnic group in Xinjiang, and the Uighurs, a Turkic minority.

Making comparisons to Tibet in terms of ethnic policy and human rights disputes, Western media and government officials were particularly skeptical about the investigation into the attack and the government statements that followed. The United States described the "conflict" as one rooted in ethnic despoliation and called for improvements in human right protections in the region. Western media preferred the words "clash," "ethnic conflict" and "social crisis" to the words "terrorism attack" in news headlines, and identified the attackers as "gangsters" and "rioters" rather than "terrorists." They also referred more to international political organizations such as the World Uighur Congress, an umbrella organization of Uighur groups, saying that the attack was a result of the Chinese government's clean-up campaign.

In Chinese government statements and media coverage, the violence was not portrayed as a result of ethnic or religious tensions, but rather the work of meddling outsiders seeking to destabilize the region. "The community people were just conducting regular checks, but the action from the rioters was planned and well prepared," Xinjiang government spokesman Hou Hanmin said. "It's certainly a terrorist attack." Hou's statement referred to a homegrown terrorist movement inspired by calls for an Islamic holy war, but not directly connected to or acting under the orders of overseas-based separatists or insurgent groups.

A commentary in Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po urged the West to give up its "double standards" in which the "terrorist massacre" was described as a "conflict" even though it shared elements of terrorism with the Boston bombing and even the 9/11 attacks. "This cold and even despicable attitude makes the Chinese people speechless and sends a chill to their spines. They have just deplored the loss of lives at the Boston bombing and condemned the culprits," the paper said.

None of this is unexpected, however, considering the complicated nature of the attack itself. The Kashgar prefecture where the attack was conducted is the largest town in Bachu county, where the largest population of native ethnic groups was inhabited. The prefecture's population totaled 41,000, with the Uighurs the majority group and several other ethnics mixed in different communities. It is easy for the media to link the attack with ethnic conflicts, particularly between the Han, representing the central government in a sense, and the Uighur and other native ethnics in such a multi-ethnic region and community. Yet, among the 15 dead police officers and social workers, 10 were Uighur, three were Han, and two were Mongolian, making the argument that the attack was planned to protest against the Han illogical.

Meanwhile, the problem with translation might have played an insignificant but important role in portraying the attack. According to a New York Times report, the local officials used the term "gangsters" in his first public statement about the attack, not "terrorists" suggesting that the Chinese government initially did not intend to identify the attack as terrorism. However, it is worth noting that the word "terrorism" as a Western concept was not adopted into common Chinese language until the 9/11attacks. The word "Baotu", which is the Chinese word for "gangsters," had conveyed the meaning that these people endangered society and that their motivation was driven by social and political messages. Translating the word "Baotu" as "gangsters" simply ruled out the terrorism-related aspects of the term, leading to further misunderstanding.

Further, the fact that China has less experience dealing with terrorism within its territory contributed to the controversy. To change the situation, the Chinese government needs not only to help the world better understand its ethnic policies with true and detailed information, but also to participate more proactively in global efforts to fight terrorism. In this sense, it is important for the Chinese government to generate a broader debate about the nature of the attack than merely publishing investigation results and the sentencing of the criminals.