BEIJING – 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.
The piece appeared aimed both at showing that the region's violence was being carried out by organized terror cells and demonstrating broad opposition to the cells by the region's citizens. However, the prizewinners' faces were blurred during interviews on TV — which could point to concerns about the safety within the greater community of citizens who help authorities crack down on militants.
In many cases, attempts at independent verification with on-the-ground reporting are easily stymied by the region's massive security apparatus. Foreign reporters who travel to the region are tailed and harassed by police and Communist Party propaganda officials keen on preventing them from speaking to residents.
A team of Associated Press journalists were followed on a recent reporting trip from the moment they landed at an airport in the prefecture of Aksu. Minders trailed them in cars and on foot, through winding, narrow neighborhood alleyways and bustling street markets, questioning anyone the reporters talked to. It's no wonder, therefore, that many Uighurs fear the consequences of talking to foreign journalists, pointing to Uighur reporters and intellectuals who have been jailed for doing so.
The government's controls on reporting and squelching of alternative narratives are not unusual elsewhere in China, but in Xinjiang, their effects are more acute, said Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang.
"That is the strategy across the country, but even more so in minority regions like Xinjiang, where there are very little alternative news sources from either daring journalists or civil society actors," Wang said.
Authorities apply similar restrictions in Tibetan areas where monks and residents have set themselves on fire to protest Beijing's rule.
But Tibetans have a charismatic ambassador in their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who travels the world challenging Beijing's narrative of the lives of his people to an audience that often includes state leaders. The Uighurs do not.
Foreign news organizations also have a deeper tradition of interacting with Tibetan rights groups and scrutinizing their reports than they do with Uighur exiles, making it more challenging to determine the credibility of the Uighur accounts.
Beijing's strategy might be hurting its efforts to gain international support for its counterterrorism efforts, or sympathy for the victims of the violence.
"This doesn't help China, to keep the flow of information under such tight control," said Zweig, the political scientist. "Because they would have, to a certain extent, a sympathetic audience. Americans understand what it means to be afraid after 9/11."