Tea Leaf Nation

Mixed Signals from China's 'Front Line'

After a bomb and knife attack in the region of Xinjiang, Chinese authorities find themselves in a dilemma.

Chinese President Xi Jinping just spent four days that, in the heavily vetted and curated universe of Chinese state media, appeared full of smiles. But the images of harmony left behind from that visit look increasingly discordant in light of what came next.

On the evening of April 30, a coordinated bomb and knife attack in the South Railway Station of Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, left three people dead and 79 injured, according to Chinese state media. The news came shortly after Xi ended a four-day visit to Xinjiang, a region in Western China in which reside the majority of China's 10 million Uighurs, mostly Turkic-speaking Muslims. It's a region plagued by ethnic tensions and, Chinese authorities aver, the home to an independence movement seeking to found an independent East Turkestan. According to Chinese authorities, Uighur separatists have recently struck elsewhere, most notably in a coordinated stabbing spree killing dozens in a train station in the southern city of Kunming on March 1.  

Following this latest attack, after a brief period during which even some official reports of the incident were censored -- perhaps while propaganda authorities coordinated their messaging -- Chinese state media labeled the event terrorism. Some Chinese outlets have stated that two of the three killed in the mayhem were suicide bombers. State news agency Xinhua has since declared the case "cracked," identifying one 39-year-old male suspect by name and stating the perpetrators operated under the "long-term influence of extreme religious thought."

The contrast between the bloody images of the bombing circulating on Chinese microblogs and the merry depictions of Xi's inspection tour is stark. In the days leading up to the attack, state-sanctioned media had devoted significant attention to Xi's visit, in the process revealing the fine line Chinese authorities walk to telegraph intolerance for violence while also winning hearts and minds in unstable regions. Some of the coverage of Xi played up his ostensible bonhomie with the Uighur population. Xinhua wrote on April 28 that after examining local troops, Xi praised them and declared that Chinese ethnicities were "as unified as one family." A Xinhua photograph dated April 28 shows Xi surrounded by smiling Uighur cadres. Other widely circulated (and state approved) images include Xi donning a Uighur flower hat on April 29, and surrounded by a gaggle of smiling Xinjiang schoolchildren on April 30. 

But efforts to make nice with the locals are, of course, part of a broader plan to stabilize the region, one that relies on a steely resolve to project Communist Party power thousands of miles west of the capital Beijing, or what Xi has called a "strike first" strategy aimed at would-be splittists. The link between the two approaches was sharply evident in an April 30 editorial in party mouthpiece Global Times titled in part, "Let's bravely go to Xinjiang." Xinjiang lies at the "front line" of counter-terrorism, reasoned the piece, published before the bombing. In order to stamp out terrorism, it continued, "average people" had to "make their own contribution" by treating Xinjiang as a "normal place," and traveling there for business and leisure. An April 29 article in outlet Legal Evening News showed just how carefully authorities track the issue when it noted that over the past two months, Xi had mentioned counter-terrorism domestically 16 times and raised the issue 11 times in statements to foreign leaders. An April 30 editorial in the liberal Beijing News, published hours before the attack, opined that Xi's visit to Xinjiang sent a "new signal" both domestically and internationally in the effort to control the region; central authorities were "determined" and willing to spend "great efforts" in solving the problems that plague it.

Xi's visit was intended to underscore his commitment to quelling unrest, but it risks becoming indelibly linked to the reverse in the Chinese public mind. On the country's social media, where counter-narratives to the official line are most likely to persist, some users explicitly associated Xi's presence with the attacks. Several comments called it a "slap to the face" and a "blatant provocation" directed at the Chinese leader. One user opined that while Xi had promised to "strike first" against terrorism in the region, he found that "his rivals had struck first instead." A very small minority of users blamed Xi; one user claiming to live in Xinjiang wrote, "If Papa Xi hadn't come," the attack would "never have happened."

Wu Bihu, a professor of tourism at prestigious Peking University, perhaps spoke for the prevailing Zeitgeist when he wrote on Weibo that "Xinjiang counter-terrorism requires both hard and soft measures." This, Wu continued, includes "using modern information technology and big data to monitor for separatists at home and abroad," combined with softer measures like "removing ethnicity from national ID cards," which currently bear that information.

The schism between hard and soft domestic power has been evident for some time. Dru C. Gladney, a Professor of Anthropology at Pomona College in California who studies Uighur issues, told Foreign Policy that it "goes to the root of party policy toward minorities" more generally: A stance which perceives them as "singing, smiling, dancing followers of the party" who nonetheless require the occasional crackdown. Gladney, who noted that the identity of most of the March 1 Kunming assailants remains a mystery, believes Chinese authorities are being especially opaque. It may stem from concern about mimicry, or copycat attacks, or worries about widespread anger toward Uighurs. But Gladney believes this only creates a "greater climate of fear and uncertainty, which is what these attackers wanted."

Online, the fear is palpable, even if it does not dominate. Many web users have expressed steadfast support for Xinjiang and its people -- but they also know they can't make central policy. In a deleted comment, one user predicted that the timing of the attack "will surely cause" Chinese authorities to "exterminate the East Turkistan [movement] ruthlessly. The chaos is just beginning." Members of the Uighur and the majority Han populations would likely unite in hoping he is wrong.

Bethany Allen contributed research.

Photo: Fair Use (Xinhua)

Tea Leaf Nation

Is Taiwan Sinking Back Into Obscurity?

For a brief spell, a student movement plucked the island from media purgatory. But the spotlight is dimming.

Barring a natural disaster or political crisis involving China, the international media has often ignored Taiwan, an island of 23 million people just off the coast of the Chinese mainland. But for roughly three weeks in March and April, things were different. Starting March 18, when students occupied Taiwan's parliament to protest legislation of a cross-strait trade pact that would open Taiwan to further mainland investment, media outlets from around the world covered the army of college-age student protesters, who were upset with their government and knew how to show it. 

The rush of foreign media attention gave the protesters, and Taiwan generally, an unusually attentive international audience. And it has created a new set of public relations challenges both for Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who has been criticized for failing to inform the public about the trade pact, and for the student organizers of what they called the "Sunflower Movement," who are now trying to keep Taiwan and the social issues they champion in the international spotlight.

Beginning with the initial occupation, frequent reports and updates appeared not only here in Foreign Policy, but also in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and wire services like the Associated Press. Many international news outlets covered the March 24 storming of the Executive Yuan, the seat of Taiwan's cabinet, and a March 30 mass demonstration outside the presidential office in Taipei, attended over one hundred thousand protesters. Television news stations like CNN, Arabic-language Al Jazeera, and Japanese public broadcaster NHK also acted quickly to bring footage of protesters clashing with baton-wielding police and to provide analysis for a worldwide audience.

This media regard did not go unremarked in sometimes attention-starved Taiwan. In an April 5 article, the news website of ETTV, a popular Taiwanese television station, provided Taiwanese readers with a run down of international coverage, noting that German left-wing newspaper Die Tageszeitung ran a front-page story praising the Sunflower Movement for "elevating democracy to an even higher level," while Bloomberg Businessweek cautioned in the headline of an April 3 article that "Taiwan's protests point to a deeper crisis" as Ma seeks to further integrate Taiwan's economy with China's. ETTV Vice President of News and External Affairs Chang Yuling told Foreign Policy that the Sunflower Movement "definitely" captured the interest of some foreign media that originally had paid Taiwan little mind. 

Domestic and foreign media coverage began to trail off, however, when students ended the occupation on April 10, following Legislature Speaker Wang Jin-pyng's promise not to hold further discussions over the cross-strait trade pact until a law is passed to give the legislature greater oversight over trade agreements with China. Despite splinter protests in the weeks that followed, coverage of Taiwan in newspapers like the Times had returned to levels seen before students occupied the parliament building. Meanwhile, an April 20 Forbes blog post noted declining membership in Taiwan's Foreign Correspondents' Club, an organization for accredited journalists that today has fewer than 30 international members. 

The warming of cross-strait relations since Ma took office in 2008 is one reason why foreign media haven't stayed focused on Taiwan. Gone are the days when former President Lee Teng-hui angered China by traveling to the United States in 1995 to speak at Cornell University, or when former president Chen Shui-bian taunted China with threats of Taiwan independence during the early 2000s. (Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province that must someday be reunited with China, by force if necessary.) Ma, by contrast, has brought Taiwan closer to the mainland, signing 21 cross-strait trade agreements over six years. With little chance of China attacking Taiwan -- or of Taiwan provoking its much larger neighbor -- many major news outlets have redeployed reporters to cover the island from the mainland or Hong Kong. 

Taiwan's diplomatic status is also partly to blame. The Taiwan Relations Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1979, ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established formal ties with the mainland. Since then, Beijing has condemned any remarks or actions that smack of Taiwanese sovereignty. While the act potentially requires that the United States defend Taiwan in a military crisis with China, it also prohibits Taiwanese high-ranking elected officials from communicating directly with their counterparts in Washington. This precludes Ma, for instance, from meeting with Obama for talks on Taiwan's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a U.S.-led pact that Obama discussed on his recent trip to Asia and that some experts say is designed to contain a growing China. Such a meeting, were it ever permitted, would generate considerable press.

Despite these obstacles, exchange among some lower-level and retired government officials and politicians from both the United States and Taiwan has taken place. On Nov. 20, 2013, Vincent Siew, the islands' vice president from 2008 to 2012, spoke at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank, in an effort to drum up U.S. support for Taiwan's entry into the TPP. And EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy traveled to Taiwan on April 14, becoming the first U.S. cabinet official to do so in 14 years. Except for Taiwan's own media, which reported on the meeting with keen interest, the foreign press (and even China's own news outlets, which mentioned Beijing's displeasure with the visit) paid little heed.

Taiwan's PR problem, however, is not just an international one. Before the Sunflower Movement occupied Taiwan's legislature, only 12 percent of Taiwanese reported understanding the trade agreement that students were protesting. Ma told the Economist that the protests and occupation were a result of "misunderstanding among the public" that the cross-strait trade agreement was never submitted for public review. Ma insisted it had been, although he conceded that most of the meetings "were small-scale," and that "the public might not have known about them." 

None of this has sat well with Taiwanese, whose favorability ratings of the Nationalist Party (KMT), which favors reunification with China, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favors independence, were 21 and 28 percent, respectively, as of April 16. While Ma and the KMT have been accused in Taiwan's press of employing deceptive and underhanded tactics to ram through the trade agreement, DPP elected officials have also faced criticism for exploiting the student protesters for political gain in an election year. For his part, Ma has acknowledged that more could have been done to get out the message. 

A revamped PR campaign might further boost Ma's approval ratings, which have edged up slightly from 9 percent to 13 percent, and give him more room to govern for his remaining two years in office. This is especially important since the Sunflower Movement's aftermation is far from decided. Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert and Ma's former instructor at Harvard Law School, told Foreign Policy that Taiwan specialists are now closely watching to see whether Taiwan's government will prosecute the protesters, including student organizers Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting, both of whom answered subpoenas on April 21 and met with Taipei prosecutors in connection with obstruction of justice and destruction of property charges. How the media portrays Ma's handling of the case could bear on his legacy as president. 

Meanwhile, Lin and Chen are doing their part to keep themselves and the protests in the international spotlight. On April 26, the pair visited 73-year-old former DPP chairman Lin Yi-hsiung at the Gikong Presbyterian Church in Taipei, where he had been on a hunger strike from April 22 to April 30 to protest Taiwan's construction of a controversial fourth nuclear power plant. Later that day, Lin also turned up at a rally outside the presidential building in Taipei to protest the island's reliance on nuclear energy. Following a second round of demonstrations on April 27, Taiwan's government agreed to seal up one reactor from the plant and halt work on another, a development reported by outlets like Reuters and the Journal. Then on April 28, at around 3 o'clock in the morning, a phalanx of whistle-blowing riot police, brandishing batons and shields, slowly squeezed demonstrators off a Taipei street while they were still protesting, as a water cannon sporadically sprayed the mostly peaceful crowd, many of whom came prepared with rain slickers. That, too, generated some international coverage, but nothing like what Taiwan saw during the height of the Sunflower Movement.  

Politics aside, the Sunflower Movement undoubtedly managed to pluck Taiwan from the international media doldrums -- if only for a few weeks -- and focus the foreign press' attention on why protesters fear further economic integration with China. This is a turnabout from just a few months ago, when Taiwanese were chiding their own media for ignoring important international issues like the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, a trade agreement Taiwan signed with China in 2010 of which the Cross Strait Service Trade Agreement is a part, and for focusing instead on trivial, "brain-dead" news. Whether they intended to or not, an army of well-organized youth protesters has reintroduced the world to Taiwan -- and seems to be getting the government to capitulate to some of its demands. Time will tell whether the protest leaders sustain the world's interest too.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images