When violence rocked Lhasa in April 2008, the Western media had a field day. For weeks, American news outlets reported on the violence and the subsequent Chinese response. Despite the rather low death toll (19 people), political leaders across the Western political spectrum called for sanctions, an Olympic boycott, and more. Protests that followed the path of the Olympic torch were given added vigor and scrupulous press coverage.
After the recent deaths of hundreds of Hans and Uighurs in Urumqi however, many media outlets covered the case and then quickly moved on. Even articles from the predictably sino-phobic New York Times have dwindled just two weeks after the riots and have lacked the anti-China vitriol that pervaded the Tibet reporting last year. And just days after the violence, the rioting in Xinjiang was moved out of the spotlight on CNN.com, NYtimes.com, Washingtonpost.com and Reuters.
This is puzzling. From a purely superficial view, the two instances are intriguingly similar: both involve disgruntled ethnic minorities attacking Han migrants and instigating widespread rioting. Moreover, American press was predisposed to run away with the story as the Xinjiang riots fit perfectly into the predictable, tired narrative that of the PRC as a ruthless, bloody oppressor. To be sure, the circumstances and context of the protests were different and the PRC has been a less than benevolent ruler of its border regions. This, however, does not wholly explain the differing press coverage. Why does rioting in Lhasa generate more interest than rioting in Urumqi?
While it is certain that China has become much more sophisticated in its engagement of the press since Lhasa, this does not explain away the American media's reaction to the Xinjiang riots. It is possible that the press is predisposed to report about the Tibetans and predisposed against reporting about the Uighurs given the underlying cultural attitudes towards both people in America.
For starters, Tibet is romanticized in American popular culture. Certainly, the Tibetan cause is worthy of attention and concern. But let's be completely frank here: there are millions of oppressed minorities across the globe. Few of them have Green Day play benefit concerts, Richard Gere as a spokesman, and near universal notoriety and support across college campuses. Simply put, Americans are besotted with the vision of Tibet as an idyllic land of monks and nirvana.
The Uighurs on the other hand, do not have a charismatic Nobel laureate leader, a Hollywood following, nor a political support network. Moreover, the Uighurs are -- dare I say it -- Muslim. And as a restive Muslim minority with a streak of violent separatist attacks, Uighurs are unlikely to engender much political goodwill on Capitol Hill or from the Washington Post editorial page in a post-9/11 world. A random sampling of American reader comments on Xinjiang articles recently shows an antipathy towards the Uighur cause as a result of its conflation with anti-American terrorist organizations. Whether America's less than balanced press coverage stems from this sentiment (or perhaps vice versa) is unclear. What is clear, however, is that American media has deemed rioting Tibetans a more worthy topic of sustained coverage than rioting Uighurs.
To be sure, the discrepancy in the reporting on both incidents is not in and of itself a cause for concern. After all, American media attempts to provide what the American public demands -- no matter how warped the beliefs that fuel these demands are. It does, however, bear examining precisely why we feel the way we do towards one minority group but not the other -- perhaps equally as important but slightly less photogenic -- group. We should be sure that given the finger wagging approach commonly used by Americans towards China in regards to minority human rights, we have founded these beliefs on accurate and balanced information, not ingrained cultural stereotypes nor media misrepresentations. Whether our fourth estate is up to the task remains to be seen.