Buddhist protests and Muslim riots. [UPDATED]

Below, the ledes from two New York Times stories concerning ethnic uprisings in Western China, separated by 16 months.

First, the lede to Jim Yardley’s “Protestors clash with police in Tibetan capitol,” published March 14, 2008

BEIJING — Violent protests erupted Friday in a busy market area of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, as Buddhist monks and other ethnic Tibetans clashed with Chinese security forces. Witnesses say the protesters burned shops, cars, military vehicles and at least one tourist bus.

[It continues in the next paragraph …]

The chaotic scene marked the most violent demonstrations since protests by Buddhist monks began in Lhasa on Monday, which was the anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. The ongoing protests have been the largest in Tibet since the late 1980s, when Chinese security forces repeatedly used lethal force to restore order in the region.


Next, the lede to Edward Wong’s “Ethnic Clashes in Western China are said to kill scores,” published July 6, 2009. [UPDATE7/7: link connects to a new story; old story deleted. See end of this post for additional details and commentary.]

BEIJING — The Chinese state news agency reported Monday that at least 140 people were killed and 816 injured when rioters clashed with the police in a regional capital in western China after days of rising tensions between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese.

[Skipping a paragraph, we get …]

The rioting broke out Sunday afternoon in a large market area of Urumqi, the capital of the vast, restive desert region of Xinjiang, and lasted for several hours before riot police officers and paramilitary or military troops locked down the Uighur quarter of the city, according to witnesses and photographs of the riot.


I don’t know enough about the current situation to comment upon it with any authority. However, I do know something about reporters and bias, and though I’m not pointing any fingers, I’ve been struck – in the early days of this protest – how restrained and comparatively unsympathetic the foreign press coverage of the Uigher uprising has been in light of the highly sympathetic reporting on the Tibetan uprising last year. One explanation, and a fairly reasonable one, I think, is that the foreign media, like many in the West, simply harbors more sympathy for Tibetan Buddhists than Uigher Muslims. But I’m sure there are others, and I’d be interested to hear them. Comments are open now closed.

[UPDATE 7/7: The July 6 NYT story to which this post originally linked has been deleted.  The link still works, but it now connects  to an entirely new story, “China Locks Down Restive Region After Deadly Clashes,” by Edward Wong. The original story is no longer on the NYT site. And so we’re left to wonder: why was it removed?

For what it’s worth, the new lede – as 5:06 PM, Shanghai time, refers to “rival protesters.”

Is it typical for the NYT to erase ledes and headlines wholesale from their site? If the NYT were a straight-up blog, they would’ve just added new material to the end of Wong’s report. But as a newspaper, it seems to me that they have some obligation, nay responsibility, to maintain a record of their coverage as it was published – especially when the older story will continue to exist in archived form across the internet in perpetuity. With that in mind: the NYT’s original story can still be found online in a few odd corners, such as this one.]

[UPDATE II 7/7: Wong’s July 6 NYT story might not be available, still, but his July 5 story is still on the site (it appeared in the print edition). Entitled, “Riots in Western China Amid Ethnic Tension,” and the lede reads:

BEIJING — At least 1,000 rioters clashed with the police on Sunday in a regional capital in western China after days of rising tensions between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese, according to witnesses and photographs of the riot.

[It continues …]

The rioting broke out Sunday afternoon in a large market area of Urumqi, the capital of the vast, restive desert region of Xinjiang, and lasted for several hours before riot police officers and paramilitary or military troops locked down the Uighur quarter of the city. The rioters threw stones at the police and set vehicles on fire, sending plumes of smoke into the sky, while police officers used fire hoses and batons to beat back rioters and detain Uighurs who appeared to be leading the protest, witnesses said.]


  1. Both are riots. Looting, burning and killing innocent people … Is that what western media branded ‘peaceful protest’? It’s funny that on the one hand the western media intentionally emphasize the racial side; on the other hand, the western news coverage seems reluctant to tell people that the rioters beat and killed people regardless of their races? Innocent Tibetan Chinese, Uighur Chinese and Han Chinese were all victims. Riots are riots! Period.

  2. I think there’s little doubt that the West is much more sympathetic to the “enlightened” & “peace-loving” mountain Buddhists with the romantic figure of the Dalai Lama at their head than they are to Muslims of any type. The US had a load of Uighurs banged up for 7 years+ without charge in Guantanamo. It’s pretty clear that had it been Christians or Buddhists in Urumqi there would be now be a lot of Western outrage. I don’t however think that prejudice against Muslims is going to be permanent in the West. The Iranian “protesters” really caught the West’s imagination and I think that even though they were protesting against the great Satans of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, they have still done a heck of lot for the increasing sophistication of Western recognition of Islam, something that will I think eventually blossom into full-on appreciation as a kind of cultural blowback from the prejudice and aggression of the current period.

  3. The US and EU are under a moral obligation to provide weapons, intelligence and training to the Uyghur and Tibetan freedom fighters. Mr. Han must be overthrown!

  4. Thanks for saying what I was thinking but couldn’t verbalize. Followup article: “Every death in China in the last 20 years can and should be journalistically linked to the Tiananmen Sqaure riots”. I mean protests.

  5. Both NYT stories are bylined Beijing meaning the reporters made their conscious or unconcscious judgments about protests v. riots without being eyewitnesses. All the more damning in terms of their biases. Good post.

  6. But, one thing to question is, were the reports (generally) accurate? How did they compare to Xinhua’s “truthiness”?

    Also, as far as “ongoing protests” in Tibet, yes, there were many “protests” (not riots) that went on throughout March and April, with the vast majority being peaceful, by most accounts. In Xinjiang, it seems that the original peaceful protest, unfortunately, turned into a very violent riot fairly quickly. So, although it does seem like there is a degree of bias (or inconsistency) in the choice of wording by the NYT, I also think there was a substantial difference in the nature of the 7.5 riot compared with the series of protests (and 3.14 riot) that occurred along the Tibetan Plateau last year.

    Also, regardless of whether Jim Yardley screwed up the wording, there are other words in the article that could indicate things that one usually associates with riots, ie. “burned shops, cars, military vehicles and at least one tourist bus” “violence” and the word “riot”, which is actually used later down in the article.

    To some degree, I think that relatively small problems like this in the Western press’s reporting are used to discredit the Western Press, and give ammunition to the CCP so that it can justify its media censorship and smear campaigns against the foreign media.

    But, nonetheless, interesting post.

  7. it’s a shame for western media to call them “protests” again this time and fortunately they realized it. anyway it’s too late for their chinese readers, western media’s credibility already went bankrupt among many chinese when they were unanimitely standed with their “tibetan protesters” who murdered innocent civilians on the streets

  8. Very well observed. I’d noted the same thing when I read the first reporting on the riots. As one Uyghur commentator observed last year (pardon my paraphrase), “Tibetans are pandas, and we Uyghurs are camels: They’re perceived as cute and cuddly, while we’re foul-tempered and prickly.” Plus, the Uyghurs still haven’t found their Richard Gere…

  9. I’d agree, Uigher Muslims suffer from a bad image problem. The Tibetans have the likes of Richard Gere and Sharon Stone on hand to tell the masses what’s really going on.

    Facetious, I know. But I too have been amazed at the lack of reporting back abroad.

  10. what is the point commenting? just listen to the music of xinjiang and xizang, beautiful, but alsa, marginalised.

  11. While I don’t follow the NYT enough to notice, I do get annoyed when the FT replace the body and title of one story with a completely different one, and sometimes with completely the opposite conclusions (and no notice that the story has been changed or edited).

  12. Of course, reporters as humans are biased. They are biased in the sense that they would propagate sympathies towards any organization/people that oppose and/or kill the Chinese or cause instability to China. Such is their mentality. It showed in last year’s report (with picture manipulation and all). It shows again in this year’s report. We have a saying in Chinese: “Dogs can’t change the habit of eating feces”. It sums it up well(Of course, dog-lovers, please don’t take this saying literally).

  13. @yinbin

    the western media’s stubborn refusal of basic facts, fabrications and manipulations in reporting last year’s tibetan riots really puzzled me, those “biasd reportings” were world-wide and seemd well well orchestrated from BBC to CNN to der Spiegel

    besides ideologies and sympathy towards tibetans, i speculate that racism is an important, deep root reason that played an important role in that global western media “bias”

  14. “I think that relatively small problems like this in the Western press’s reporting are used to discredit the Western Press”

    they are not “small problems” as journalists from prestigious western media fabricated “facts” or even lied in public when it came to reporting the tibetan riots


  16. There is a distinction that might partially explain the different terminology. Protest implies disapproval of gov’t action and early reports had the Lhasa “protesters” upset over the arrest of monks. Early reports have the Xinjiang “rioters” sparked by accusations of race-based violence, where the gov’t wasn’t an actively participant.

  17. @Adam: Great post and very interesting comparison. I would not at all be surprised if (ahem) “peaceful” Buddhists got better press than Muslims. Sad snapshot of N. American bias certainly.

    @yinbin and @chinese from shanghai – I really don’t think you can lump “Western” media into a sum like that. I’ve heard this “orchestrated biased” garbage repeated without thought from a number of Chinese and it’s ignorant and useless.

    While many Western journalists are undoubtedly biased towards a China they see as run by a strong-handed authoritarian regime (also ignorant and useless), so much of Western media’s reporting on China would be improved if they were simply allowed better access. As it stands they’re kept in the dark and fed crap – is it any surprise that their quality of reporting is less than even-handed?

    When things broke out in Tibet last year the Western reporting was terrible – unchecked, unverified junk. Wrong images, questionable editorial decisions, incorrect facts, etc., etc.

    But consider what they were working with — they HAD to write something. They HAD to run something. It was a huge news story about a country that was about to host the largest most cross-border/peaceful sporting competition having riotsprotests in their backyard. But when they went to write about it, to do their jobs and report about it they were shut out. They were fed inaccurate propaganda from official sources and were not allowed to do ANY real journalism.

    It simply is NOT a conspiracy where the world at large is trying to keep the Sick Man of Asia down. While there are certainly people in every country (including China) that have that agenda, it is not the principle driving force behind all Westerners (armed with a pen and a camera or not). Change your paradigm. Stop parroting mindless ideas that are fostered by people in power who benefit from those ideas.

    @Lara: A very fair point.

  18. I blog for The Times — as you know since I am the person whose post you called “snarky” yesterday — and I can explain that all you have seen with the different versions of Mr. Wong’s article is that articles written for the newspaper are posted every day on the NYTimes.com Web site as early version that are then revised and updated as the day goes on, until the final version that goes into print is ready. Since they are articles and not blog posts, those early versions are simply over-written, rather than archived.

  19. What Mackey says is very interesting and if true it really blurs the line between blogging and reporting. “They are articles and not blog posts” he writes. But what is the difference if they are posted to the website? Seems like it’s just a way for the Times to avoid accountability for mistakes posted by reporters in the course of a day.

    Also it seems that Mackey is a little thin-skinned about being called ‘snarky.’ A blogger should let that roll off him. Sheesh.

  20. Ryan – No access to Tibet is no excuse for making thins up. We should not rationalize for irresponsible journalism behaviour. And how convenient to say that I am “parroting” government ideas? I myself think that they made the wrong move to shut out Tibet when the rioting happened. It was their knee-jerk reaction. And It was stupid. When it comes to international PR (which by the way the Dalai Lama people are exceptionally good at), the Chinese government officials are absolute idiots. But they learned something from last year and had allowed foreign reporters access to Xinjiang from early on.

    Reading about the rioting in Xinjiang in which Uighurs massacred Han Chinese is blood-curdling. I begin to wonder from where the mobs got the courage to carry out such cruel maiming and killing. At the same time, one cannot help drawing parallels between this rioting incident and the one that happened last year in Tibet. In both riots, mobs burned shops, cars and buses. They beat and killed innocent Chinese on the street.

    I have a theory that the Uighurs got the courage from the knowledge that if they kill Han Chinese (like the Tibetans did last year), they will NEVER be blamed by Western countries (who wield the power in the international community). Instead, only the Chinese government will be blamed.

    Why? It is because they saw that Western media and Western politicians UNANIMOUSLY sided with the violent rioters in Tibet, showed NO sympathies for the Han Chinese killed and blamed the Chinese government in ONE CHORUS, even though the Tibetan rioters carried out atrocious deeds.

    Such a pattern of Western reaction then got them emboldened. Coupled with their pent-up ill feelings towards Han Chinese (due to their perception of social injustice), they took to the streets and did the unthinkable deeds.

    I am not saying that Western media and Western governments directly instigated the rioters. But there is a very high likelihood that the Uighurs rioters got the courage from the knowledge that Western countries (read: the powerful ones in the world) will side with them.

    And from the way things are getting reported in the Western media even this time, they were pretty right.

  21. @yinbin

    in my opinion, the western media and governments are the cohorts of those Uyghur rioters. chinese government are very hesitate to use force to curb crimes like this because the chinese government are afraid using forces will damage its international image

    the high civilian casualties is mainly due to this reluctance to use force (including necessary police weapons like tear gas)

    western media dare not to twist facts too much this time because it is just too obvious who murdered who and they dare not to fool the world like all ppl are idoits. this gives chinese government certain leverage to deploy more police and troops to prevent more violence in xinjiang

    put it in short, western media are the cohorts of those terrorists in xinjiang this year and in tibet last year

  22. Chinese from Shanghai – Indeed, I do feel that, as a result of years and years of being bombarded with (often unjust) censure from Western countries, the Chinese government is now too cautious when dealing with crises like this.

    This unfortunately cost the lives of more than 100 civilians in Xinjiang. They should have brought troops in at the very earliest moment to stop the Uighur mobs’killing spree.

    I am really sad that the government was not able to take determined and swift action at the earliest moment because they were shackled by the prospect of once again being unjustly criticized by Western countries. More than 100 innocent civilians had to die due to the inaction.

    Even though Western media are not purposefully twisting facts this time, if you read through the articles in major Western publications, you will see that they tend to be very reluctant in pointing out the agents of the rioting (Uighurs, that is). Many still refer to these people as “protesters”. Funny thing is that they are very swift in referring to Han Chinese as “mobs” when they report Han Chinese taking to the street to protest against the violence. Telegraph, for instance did just that, among possibly other Western publications. They portray Uighurs as victims of a country that suppresses them. They say virtually nothing about the preferential policies that China has for Uighurs.

  23. @yinbin

    i agree with you that western media is by far still trying to twist facts whenever they have a chance.

    but there are a number of factors that prevent them to go to the extreme of lying to the whole world like they did in last year’s tibetan riots

    besides the obvious facts, you have to admit there are SOME honest western journalists reporting the truth from urumqi, which was not possible last year because china government didn’t allow all foreign media to visit tibet. secondly, a lot of first hand accounts are circulated in the internet, which makes western media difficult to fabricate “news” about this xinjiang riots

  24. @yinbin – do you seriously think Xinjiang rioters make a lot of strategic decisions based on a desire for favorable New York Times coverage? Do you think they care that some foreign newspaper which they can’t read says nice things about them as they face armed police? These are riots – by definition there isn’t much thought or planning behind them, just anger – thus the answer to your question as to how people can be so cruel. World history and the daily news are full of such. I find Chinese media reports of organized plots to be not very convincing, from where I am it looks disorganized, spontaneous, destructive and tragic for all involved.

  25. Okay, I think this is a good place to close comments. Thanks to everyone who stopped by, and I hope you’ll do so again. At some point soon I plan to revisit interesting comment #21 from the NYT’s Robert Mackey. I think it points to an interesting issue in contemporary media, ie the blending of blogs and reporting, and the desire of major media organizations to have it both ways.

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