Thursday, July 09, 2009

Ryan Pyle Blog: Tibet vs Xinjiang


Well, i don't mind eating my words from time to time; and it looks like that is exactly what I'll be doing during this blog. Two days ago I blogged about the violence in Urumqi and how things seemed to be shaping up. I made a reference to Lhasa last March and how journalists watched from afar, and how chasing this kind of public rioting and conflict in China is akin to chasing ghosts.

It seems I have made a misjudgment; and for that I need to make a correction.

Urumqi is a large metropolis of about 2 million or so people, and Xinjiang is effectively "open", where as Tibet is "closed". This fact means that basically foreigners can travel freely to Xinjiang without having to apply for permits through travel agents. This fact is central to the quick response, and success, of the foreign media is reporting on the riots. There are also about 5 flights a day from Shanghai to Urumqi, equal to that of Beijing, and those flights are direct; unlike to Lhasa where you need to change plans in Chengdu. Beyond logistics I'm amazed, after reading the news and seeing the news clips, that there is some much coming out of Urumqi and how the major news sources are putting together strong stories. Whereas almost nothing came out of Lhasa in the first 72 hours.

I expected the riots to last only one day; followed by a brutal clamp down. But that hasn't really happened. The big round up of arrests has caused further sparks, including a group of elderly women and children acting out in front of foreign journalists. After that journalists seem to have open access to hospitals, where both Uygur and Chinese are recovering. I was really surprised when a group of Han Chinese, packing bats and knives, went out looking for trouble in Uygur neighborhoods. There will be more of this in the coming days I reckon. The feelings are boiling over from years of distrust and frustration between the two dominant ethnic groups in Xinjiang. And I am sure people will keep acting out in front of the foreign media.

It seems that there is a lot to report on and that, for now, the government is at least tolerating the media presence; and that might change at anytime. I'm very sad I'm not actually there at the moment. I'm stuck in Canada watching from the sidelines, but I've never been very good at being a breaking news photographer. I'll be visiting Xinjiang, and Urumqi specifically, in August and I'm sure there will be an opportunity to document, in some way, the clashes we've been witnessing.

I've lived in China for eight years now, and I've been documenting Xinjiang for about four years; making 4-5 trips a year to various parts of the province. It really pains me to see the fringes of the country tearing itself apart like this. First Tibet, now Xinjiang. Years and years of misrule and inequality have led to a boiling over of frustrations. I hope the loss of life ends quickly and the situation comes back under control, but not mass execution kind of control. Chinese leaders need to start thinking about long term solutions for both Tibet and Xinjiang; and there is no excuse for them to have not already figured out some sort of path. It's not like they need to worry about elections every four years.

More messiness to follow.

Ryan Pyle

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Ryan Pyle