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China Cracks Down on Media - 2002-05-09

China's campaign against terrorism and separatism in the western region of Xinjiang has apparently expanded to the media. Observers say some publications in the predominantly-Muslim region have been closed down, and some workers at publishing houses have been dismissed.

Human rights organizations, media monitoring groups and other observers have noted what they say is an intensified effort by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang to shut down or restrict publications that the government considers a threat to political or social stability.

Two groups, the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York and Reporters without Borders in Paris, say officials in Xinjiang were told earlier this year to strengthen their ideological campaign and prevent separatist elements from using the press for their own agenda.

Xinjiang's population is made up of several Muslim ethnic groups and a small, but growing, number of Han Chinese. The largest Muslim group are Uighurs, who trace their roots to Turkey. Most Xinjiang residents live peacefully under Chinese rule, but there are many Uighur activists who say the region should instead be an independent country called East Turkistan. Some occasionally resort to violence to press their cause.

China's crackdown against separatism in Xinjiang pre-dates the September 11 terrorist attacks. But observers say the government has used the global anti-terror campaign to intensify its efforts in Xinjiang, including strengthening its control over the media.

In April of last year, China launched a nation-wide campaign against crime which, in Xinjiang, also targeted separatist activities. Amnesty International says from April to July, 2001, a few thousand books, publications and audio-visual materials were confiscated in one prefecture in Xinjiang.

Then in August, the Chinese government issued a new directive called the "Seven No's," saying publications can be summarily shut down for reporting on seven proscribed topics. These include reports that reveal state secrets, harm national unity or oppose official policies on minorities.

The French news agency AFP quotes an official in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, as saying 52 publications are being shut down because of the sensitive nature of their contents. The Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders cannot confirm the number of publications being closed, but both groups say they have seen enough evidence to indicate authorities are tightening their control over the media.

Vincent Brossel, head of the Asia-Pacific desk at Reporters without Borders, says China's Department of Cultural Affairs and the police in March seized and destroyed a large number of books and publications - especially materials coming from outside Xinjiang and those printed in the local Uighur language. Mr. Brossel says the actions illustrate a nervousness by Chinese authorities who want to end all criticism in the media as they prepare for a national Communist Party meeting later this year.

It means the authorities are very concerned with all the social, cultural and intellectual activities, and especially the press, because we have noticed, not only in Xinjiang, that for now a couple of months, especially in the context of the preparation for the Communist Party Congress, there is a very serious control on the state monopoly of information. And Xinjiang is especially concerned by this crackdown.

Official Chinese news reports say Xinjiang authorities have been instructed to guard against Muslim separatists outside China using print and broadcast media and the internet to get their message into the region. American scholars who follow events in Xinjiang say the crackdown is being implemented in several ways. In some cases, reporters or editors have been removed or entire journals shut down if they are suspected of supporting Xinjiang's independence. In addition, the scholars say, internal mechanisms for censorship are in place to stop sensitive articles before they are even printed.

The East Turkistan Information Center, a Munich, Germany-based group that advocates for Uighur independence, says China wants to eliminate dissenting voices in the media. A U.S. spokesman for the group, who asked not to be identified, says the closure of publications is a common tool used by China.

This is not a surprise for the Uighurs, because this is a very traditional policy of the Chinese government since maybe 1949, to deliver a limited amount of information to people with regards to their national heritage, with regards to their history and maybe some other things.

Especially after September 11 events, Chinese now crack down on Uighurs openly and not only in the area of, let us say, those people who commit some kind of violent acts against the Chinese government, but also those who just oppose Chinese government views on history, on culture and some other things.

He says China's crackdown on Uighurs started in the late 1980's and resumed in the 1990's after an uprising in the Kashgar area of Xinjiang. He says China is using the September 11 attacks as an excuse, because, he says, there is no proof of any link between Uighurs and the al-Qaida terrorist network of Osama Bin Laden.

Vincent Brossel says there are some small groups of armed separatists in Xinjiang, but they do not have any connection to international terrorism.

Most of the population and most of the intellectuals and most of the people who are concerned about the future of this region are not terrorists. They are just social activists or people who want to see the respect of their own culture, what is, I think, one of the basic human rights.

Last month Mr. Brossel's organization, Reporters without Borders, sent a letter to the propaganda chief of the Communist Party central committee, Ding Guangen, condemning the crackdown on journalists. The letter urges China to stop the repression of people who are expressing their opinions and challenging the party's monopoly on information.