Ursula Gauthier, erstwhile Beijing correspondent for the French newsweekly L’Obs, left China for good in the early hours of January 1. It was not, as they say, of her own volition.
When the clock struck midnight on 2015, Gauthier’s press visa expired and was not up for renewal. According to official organs, she had offended the Chinese people with her November 18 article written in the aftermath of the November 13 terrorist attacks on Paris. Gauthier’s refusal to publicly apologize for remarks concerning China’s attempts to link Paris with its own problems in Xinjiang was taken as the final straw.
But her departure merely concluded a weeks-long saga of intimidation and mudslinging directed from the highest reaches of China’s propaganda and foreign affairs departments (a typical example here). In a statement, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) summarized the campaign against Gauthier, in which her photograph and address were published on a military forum, and expressed its unqualified disgust: “Insinuating that Ms. Gauthier supports terrorism is a particularly egregious personal and professional affront with no basis in fact.”
Indeed, on the basis of this (to say the least) unbecoming treatment of an accredited journalist, foreign correspondents have presented a united front, whatever they might have thought – and privately grumbled about – the substance of Gauthier’s piece. So let us be as similarly bold, so there’s no confusion: China’s official response to Ursula Gauthier’s piece in L’Obs is puerile, petty, and idiotic.
It can’t be said enough: expelling journalists for their work is not only a bad look – puerile, petty, idiotic, one might say – but terrible policy. As this excellent China Law and Policy blog post explains, Beijing has used the typically broad strokes of its Foreign Media Regulations to libel Gauthier as “championing terrorism,” offering a pathetic veneer of legality to its shit fit, and signaling a re-hardening of attitudes toward any who dare approach the invisible red lines of China reportage (ethnic policy, finances of the leadership, etc). It’s interesting to wonder whether Gauthier’s visa would have been affected if her article came out in June – six months before she needed an extension – as China renews all press credentials at the end of the calendar year; certainly, the timing benefitted her critics. Still, if Gauthier’s expulsion was meant to be a warning, it’s not likely it’ll rattle journalists worth their salt: within days of the announcement came a New York Times report entitled “Xinjiang Seethes Under Chinese Crackdown.”
But nor is any journalist willing to ask serious questions of Gauthier’s reporting, for fear of validating the response. Unfortunately, this code of silence – though broken quite frankly in private – is not only sketchy ethics (“We always report fairly and objectively – unless it’s one of us”), it’s a gift to Chinese propagandists who prefer their critics to be a homogenous, hostile mass – “Western media” – than an independent and wholly diverse group of earnest scrutineers.
Gauthier’s article – her English translation can be found here, via China Digital Times – was fatally flawed in one way: she failed to differentiate between terrorism – defined as the violent targeting of innocent civilians for political purposes – and Terrorism™, the post-9/11 brand, which is an empty shell of counterproductive rhetoric.
China wanting in on Terrorism’s™ endless war should not surprise anybody, because that “war” – for all its ceaseless costs and stupidity – is a stirring political success. Of course China’s ruthlessly savvy and shrewd politicians would like to be a recognized component of a globally legitimized campaign against Extremism. And naturally, when a journalist calls them out, they call her a hypocrite, kick her out of the country, and create a poll that asks, “Do you support expelling the China-based French journalist who championed terrorism,” then relish in the fact that 94% of respondents said yes. The War on Terror™ in the United States, by the way, has led to discrimination, censorship,
In attacking China’s rhetoric on Terror™, Gauthier could have done herself a service by pointing out that this rhetoric is US-born and incredibly dumb. It’s not about using different yardsticks for China vs. “The West” – those yardsticks all suck. How is China’s War on Terror™ different than any other country’s? It’s not – it’s equally pathetic.
But Gauthier’s other, bigger mistake was the following passage, which – and many reporters, even those who vehemently support Gauthier’s cause, will admit this – veers too far from any factual basis to be considered good journalism:
But, bloody though it was, the Baicheng attack had nothing in common with the 13th November attacks. In fact it was an explosion of local rage such as have blown up more and more often in this distant province whose inhabitants, turcophone and Muslim Uyghurs, face pitiless repression. Pushed to the limit, a small group of Uyghurs armed with cleavers set upon a coal mine and its Han Chinese workers, probably in revenge for an abuse, an injustice or an expropriation.
“Probably in revenge for an abuse, an injustice or an expropriation” is a sentence that will flunk you out of Journalism 101. (And how could these coal miners, among the most disenfranchised and vulnerable group of workers in China, possibly have it coming?) Even if this was a magazine column, where there’s room for occasional editorializing, the speculation probably outreaches the research. Ignoring this simply reinforces the “Us and Them” dynamic so beloved of state media’s criticism of the “Western media.”
And Gauthier’s kicker:
China is unlikely to win the sort of cooperation from the US and Europe that it garnered after September 11th. Given the smothering control over Chinese society and territory that the authorities enjoy, it is equally unlikely that Islamic State jihadists will link up with infuriated Xinjiang residents. But so long as the Uyghurs’ situation continues to get worse, China’s magnificent mega-cities will be vulnerable to the risk of machete attacks.
Seen in light of the Baicheng attacks – in which scores of coal miners were knifed to death – the phrase “China’s magnificent mega-cities will be vulnerable to the risk of machete attacks” reads as tone-deaf, and dangerously close to the sentiment, Maybe they deserved it. (Gauthier doesn’t say those words, and maybe she would never try to imply it, but it’s a sentiment that some people hold, and that disembodied sentiment lurks in the context of what Gauthier did write.) For the record, there’s a way to say “repression can radicalize the marginalized” without sounding callous.
Should Gauthier have been expelled for publishing this? Absolutely not. Xinjiang is a place of swirling ethnic tension, where many Uyghurs have legitimate fears of “being labeled ‘a terrorist,’” as BJC columnist Beige Wind wrote last month. But the issue is with the label itself, and the War on Terror.™
China is not the first – and won’t be the last – country to politicize a tragedy. (They certainly could have picked a better time than post-Paris to point at their own terrorism problem, particularly a massacre they were more than happy to suppress at the time.) Then again, they didn’t come up with the original terms for the War on Terror™, and seem to have only the faintest understanding of what it entails. Blame them roundly for expelling Gauthier, yes. But let’s remember that they’re merely parroting a flawed rhetoric, one that a significant number of leaders probably don’t believe themselves, except for the political benefits that they deem theirs to share.
Since nobody has commented yet, I’ll bite: I’m guessing none of us, being primarily English-speakers, would have heard of Gauthier’s article, or Gauthier, or even the publication in which it was printed for that matter, had it not been for her being thrown out of the country. For that reason the article hasn’t been analysed much beyond doing the amount of work necessary to confirm whether her expulsion from the country was justified (and as you say, it was not). For that reason you shouldn’t really be surprised that nobody has spent much time seeing whether the article was any good or whether it was accurate – this is not something anyone actually cares much about.
I absolutely condemn the killings of Han miners in Xinjiang, and I agree with Anthony and RFH that Ursula has not done a very good job of explicating the particular history of violence in the small county of Bey (which means “wealth” in Uyghur) in Southern Xinjiang. It really isn’t good enough to say an attack by Uyghur farmers against unarmed Han miners “is probably in revenge.” So what might an explanation of the context of this specific of violence actually look like?
It is not as though the county of Bey (or Baicheng as it is known in Chinese) has been known as a center of “terrorism” for years. Like the rest of Southern Xinjiang, since the beginning of Xi Jinping’s and Zhang Chunxian’s “People’s War on Terror” in mid-2014, violence in this county has increased. At the outset of this new campaign thousands of Uyghur men and women were arrested and held behind the local “black gates” (Uy: qara derweze) where they began receiving political and religious reeducation. The police began entering the homes of villagers every night, looking for suspicious books, Uyghur men with facial hair or Uyghur women with veiled faces. Phones and computers were scanned regularly. Farmers were forced to assemble regularly in the local town squares and local homes for dances to patriotic and other songs. When I visited Bey in early 2015 I myself had my phone checked for “splitist” or “terrorist” materials by police and local militia (made up of local Uyghur farmers who had been conscripted by the armed police and joined in the house-to-house searches in order to prevent their own arrest).
In February of 2015 (http://bit.ly/1YOEteC) a man and several of his neighbors all of whom had had brothers and friends arrested, attempted to grab the gun of one of the police officers who regularly checked his home and threatened him with arrest. Fortunately he couldn’t figure out how to shoot the gun. But he and his neighbors used knives to cut the police officer and militia. Within minutes the armed police arrived and began shooting in the streets. All of the assailants were killed. The man’s wife and their elementary school-aged daughter and, as is often the case in these incidents, numerous other bystanders were shot. According to my contacts following the incident the police courtyard was “covered with bodies.” Over the next several months thousands of farmers were arrested. Five uncles of one of my contacts were arrested. Each of them were sentenced to 5 or more years in the work farm. Someone had reported that they had been seen with the man (their neighbor) in the years leading up to the attack. According to my contacts at least 8 people died during their interrogations. Everyone arrested suffered some degree of “enhanced interrogation.” Although we really don’t know enough to say with certainty, my sense is that the violence of Sept. 22 (which went unreported in the Chinese press until after the Paris attack) and the subsequent “manhunt” that killed the wives and children of the men involved, is quite directly related to the earlier violence.
Of course, attacking unarmed settlers, even those who are radically changing the social landscape of your home county, is never justified, but the grievances and fears felt by every Uyghur in Bey are by no-means abstract. Their homes and bodies are stopped and searched every day. They are not allowed to leave their home counties without a “green card” （Ch: Bianminka）which is issued by the local government. The situation is quite bleak.