Let's face it: We have little idea what's actually going on in Xinjiang and Tibet.
On Tuesday, or so it seems, 21 people were killed in the region of Xinjiang in northwest China. According to Hou Hanmin, a Xinjiang propaganda bureau spokeswoman, a gang of 14 "suspicious people" took three community workers hostage. When police and officials rushed to the scene, the gang attacked them with axes and large knives, murdered the hostages, and then set the house on fire. Hou told the New York Times that the 14 assailants were all Uighurs who "had been influenced by ‘religious extremism' and had been plotting a ‘jihad' since the end of last year, though there was no evidence they were working with foreign forces."
Many of the Western reporters who wrote about the incident noted the unreliability of the government's version. "As with many such events in Xinjiang, details of the fighting on Tuesday remained murky even a full day after the violence had transpired. Some elements of the official accounts were bizarre," wrote Times correspondent Ed Wong. It's possible that the deadly violence occurred just five days after the United States discovered that Muslim extremists were responsible for a series of explosions at the Boston Marathon that killed 3 and injured more than 170 -- though the timing is certainly fortuitous. After the United States declined to condemn the Xinjiang attack, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that its "refusal to do so showed double standards, considering that it had been the recent victim of a terrorist attack."
Like with many events in Xinjiang, and in nearby Tibet, what actually happened remains unknown. "Fifteen people were killed in their house? That's very suspicious to us," said Alim Seytoff, President of the Uighur American Association, an advocacy organization. "They said they were armed with knives and axes -- to kill so many people in such short time is unbelievable." A Uighur activist in Germany told the Associated Press that local residents reported the police had sparked the incident when they shot a Uighur youth. The problem is that no Western reporters have been able to go in and investigate for themselves.
Beijing's media blockade has been successful. Instead of allowing some access to Western reporters, Beijing a few years ago resumed an old strategy and restricted their ability to enter Xinjiang, and almost entirely banned them from entering the mountainous, 460,000-square-mile Tibetan Autonomous Region. Millions of Tibetans live in the neighboring provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Gansu, so with some difficulty, journalists have been able to visit Tibetan areas in those provinces. But on the whole, Western journalist are extremely curtailed in their ability to report on these regions, which has implications for American understanding of Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as for the worrying situation on the ground.
Just how bad is it? Xinjiang, a resource-rich region of 22 million people, often erupts in ethnic violence between the roughly 45 percent of the population that is of the Turkic-speaking Uighur minority, and Han Chinese, most of whom have migrated to the region since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Tuesday's alleged incident was the deadliest since riots in July 2009 killed nearly 200 people. Tibet is worse. The independent watchdog organization Freedom House annually ranks countries and territories on their level of political rights and civil liberties. The group's most recent report, released Jan 2013, included Tibet in its "Worst of the Worst" category, joining North Korea and Somalia. More than 100 Tibetans have immolated themselves in protest since 2011; three apparently did so on Wednesday, though details are sparse. AP reported on the story from Beijing, and sourced "exiled Buddhist monks and reports." "Even Pyongyang has foreign journalists coming and going," says Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute, a project affiliated with the activism organization Students for a Free Tibet. "It's appalling."
In March 2012, Peter Ford, a veteran foreign correspondent for Christian Science Monitor, published an article entitled "In China, reporting on Tibetan and Uighur unrest is nearly impossible." Though allowed to visit Xinjiang, he "found very few Uighurs brave enough to risk the punishment they feared if they were found to have talked to me. Never, in 30 years of reporting from five continents, have I found it so difficult to be a journalist." Fear "prevents them from speaking their mind and reporting what is happening to them," explains Nicholas Bequelin, Hong Kong-based senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "You can go around the media restriction in Xinjiang, but you can't go around that people are terrorized in fear of getting caught."
Since Ford's article, journalists have gone to Xinjiang, but it appears that only one Western publication managed to send anyone to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. In October 2012, the Economist ran a story from there on the boom in Chinese tourism, entitled "Strangers in a strange land," which featured no interviews with Tibetans. China's strategy to keep Western reporters out is an "acknowledgement that the Chinese government knows that not a single Tibetan or a single Uighur won't complain about state policy," says Bequelin of Human Rights Watch.
The lack of access has taken its toll on the Tibetan cause. Mary Beth Markey, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, says that the region was more open in the 1990s. Tethong, of the Tibet Action Institute says, "I've been working full time on the Tibet issue since 1999, and there's never been a time when things have been this locked down."
Freeing Tibet is not as popular as it was in the 1990s, when Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys organized Tibetan Freedom Concerts, when Free Tibet patches were common on backpacks and guitar cases in college campuses across the United States, and when Western government officials could meet with the Dalai Lama without the fear of a sizable reduction in trade with China. "The Tibet Movement is in a difficult stage right now. A lot of people have lost faith," says Gandon Thurman, the executive director of Tibet House, a NYC-based institute dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture. Thurman, son of prominent Tibet-scholar Robert Thurman (and brother of Uma) blames U.S. business interests for the betrayal of Tibet but thinks "there is a definitely a connection" between the ability for Western journalists to report in Tibet and worldwide concern for Tibetans. "If you can't report on it and people don't know anything about it, it becomes a non-issue. "
Google Trends, a search analysis tool that shows the frequency of a search term relative to total search volume, tells a similar story. Interest in Tibet peaked in April 2008, after the bloody suppression of rioting Tibetans sparked protests around the world. Interest also spiked during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, when world attention turned toward China's human rights violations. But otherwise, interest in Tibet has steadily declined since January 2004, the earliest month for which Google Trends provides data. Searches for "Free Tibet" have decreased more dramatically, and a similar pattern exists for searches for Tibet in Mandarin. (English-language search for the Dalai Lama, however, remains high.)
Meanwhile, in Xinjiang, Hou is sticking to the message. Tuesday's violence is "certainly a terrorist attack," she told reporters, comparing the incident to the Boston Marathon bombings. And until Western reporters can investigate, her version of the events will remain the last one standing.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images