- Associated Press - Monday, August 4, 2014

BEIJING (AP) - When a remote county in China’s far west exploded last week in what appeared to be the country’s worst ethnic violence since 2009, it took the government six days to put out an exact death toll. It isn’t clear when a full picture of what happened might emerge, if ever, given Beijing’s iron-fisted grip on the minority region.

The Chinese government uses expansive controls and propaganda to maintain a virtual monopoly on the narrative in the tense region of Xinjiang, where minority Uighurs complain of oppression under Beijing’s rule.

This limits outsiders to a one-sided view on escalating ethnic unrest that has killed dozens of people over the past year and poses a major test to Beijing’s rule.

“With no independent media coverage, it is easier for the state to demonize its enemies,” said Bob Dietz, Asia coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “But the fact that it doesn’t allow the rest of the world, foreign and Chinese journalists, to report independently throws the official version of events into disrepute.”

Authorities routinely seal off areas with paramilitary troops whenever there is conflict, and disrupt Internet and mobile phone services to strangle the flow of information to the outside world. Local officials stonewall inquiries. The unrest often occurs in communities where communication with Uighur-speaking residents can be difficult for outsiders.

“It is very frustrating because you never totally know what the story is,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism expert who studies China at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, a think tank in London. “Every time one tries to look into specific incidents, you get this reporting which has discrepancies within it, so you never really know, if you’re writing or researching about this, whether you’re getting things right.”

A case in point was the July 28 violence in Yarkand, a county on the southern rim of the Taklamakan desert near the mountainous border with Pakistan. Almost two days passed before a brief state media dispatch said vaguely that a gang attacked a police station and government buildings in the county known in Chinese as Shache, killing dozens of civilians before police shot dead dozens of the attackers.

It was only on Sunday that the official Xinhua News Agency released a casualty count, saying a terrorist gang killed 37 people, who were mostly members of China’s ethnic Han majority, with knives. Police gunned down 59 of the assailants, said to be led by a man with close ties to an overseas terror group.

With a total death toll of 96, it appeared to be the most serious single instance of bloodshed since riots broke out in July 2009 in the regional capital of Urumqi that left nearly 200 dead. Yet, details remained scant for an incident of such proportions.

Chinese authorities could be trying to avoid fueling concerns that the authorities in Xinjiang have responded to the unrest with excessive force. Police have increasingly taken to shooting dead alleged assailants, while hundreds of people have been arrested in recent months.

“If they’re cracking down with a great deal of force, they don’t want that kind of information to appear on the front pages of Western media, that’s why they would try to staunch the flow,” said David Zweig, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

But others will step in to try to fill the gaps. In the Yarkand incident, an overseas Uighur (pronounced WEE’-gur) activist group put out a vastly different version of events, saying police killed Uighurs who had been protesting the authorities’ heavy-handed security crackdown during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The U.S. government-funded broadcaster Radio Free Asia, which hires Uighur speakers, also often puts out reports that investigate Beijing’s claims on incidents of unrest.

Pantucci said the resulting ambiguity meant some fundamental questions about the recent uptick in violence remained unanswered. “What are we actually seeing? Is it that we’re seeing an organized terrorist network that is launching a series of coordinated attacks around the country?” Pantucci said. “Or are we seeing individuals who are angry at the state and are reacting in a haphazard way on very specific things? Or are we seeing both at the same time?”

Yet, the government is also able to unleash a torrent of propaganda to build on its narrative when it chooses to. On Sunday, state broadcaster CCTV aired footage of a raid of a group of alleged terrorists by police in the southern county of Karakash. Police shot dead nine people and captured one in Friday’s siege, the reports said.

State media said at least 30,000 villagers volunteered in the operation, and showed a row of men standing with sticks outside a cornfield where the targets were apparently hiding. Those who helped were later given sizable cash rewards in a televised ceremony.

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