Carry on and Keep quiet when reporting on religion in China

“Why does the press soft pedal links between terrorism and Islam?” was the question under discussion in this week’s edition of Crossroads, a Get Religion podcast produced in conjunction with Lutheran Public Radio’s Issues Etc host Todd Wilken.

“I don’t know why, but it does” — pretty well sums up the show. Last week’s Kunming terror attack, which left 29 dead and almost 150 injured, was our point of entry into the debate. In the media coverage of the Kunming incident I argued it was possible to see two divergent themes. Chinese press outlets were quick to label the incident as a terrorist attack. State officials were quoted describing the attack as terrorism, while eyewitness accounts called the knife-wielding assailants as terrorists. Yet the hand of government censorship could be seen in the Chinese press accounts as no mention was made of religion or politics.

Several Western press outlets were squeamish about using the word terrorism to describe the attack — placing it in quotes or allowing it to appear only in the words of Chinese government officials. However, the Western press did shine a light (though rather dimly) on areas the Chinese government sought to keep dark. They identified the attackers as members of the Uighar minority group from Northwest China and noted the on-going ethnic tension in that part of the country between the Uighars and Han Chinese. The Western press was not as one in reporting on the Muslim faith of the Uighars. Some outlets like the New York Times mentioned Islam at the top of their stories. The Associated Press placed it in the middle of their story. CNN in the last paragraph, while the Telegraph made no mention of it at all.

The Chinese government’s silence about religious strife I observed was predictable as it reflected a long standing policy of state control/accommodation of the major religious faiths in support of the Communist Party’s official goal of promoting a harmonious society.

The silence about Islam and terrorism from the Western press I could not readily explain without resorting to facile nostrums of political correctness or ignorance. The specialist literature has noted the links between radical Islam and Uighar separatism, while the first day reports in the Western press described the unusual killing style adopted by the terrorists — using knives and swords they attempted to strike at the necks of their victims to decapitate them (a hallmark of Islamic terrorism).

Western reporting from China is a delicate business. If you look too closely into some corners you will lose your visa and have to leave the country. Though I have never reported from China I know several members of the trade who have. One conversation I had several years ago focused on the relative silence about the role of religion in Chinese life found in Western press reports. Save for the occasional specialist stories about the House Church movement, we did not hear much about religion. Was China like Japan, I asked? A country where religion plays a much smaller role in civic life than in the US?

The answer I received (admittedly given whilst chatting in an airport bar in Africa, an environment not calculated for the deepest ruminations on the craft of reporting and religion I admit) was that it was a mug’s game to try to work in the religion angle in stories from China. You were likely to displease your hosts jeopardizing your access to sources (and even the country itself) while your editors in London were uninterested in the religion angle anyway. Why go to all that bother? Stick to politics, economics — be bold about corruption but don’t pick a fight in a battle you were not likely to win — was the sage advice I received.

Over the past ten years the internet has changed the mechanics of reporting in ways I could not have predicted. Maybe the old ways of the Fleet Street hack have passed into oblivion. Perhaps, but in the Kunming affair my sense of the story is that disinterest from the Western press and hostility from the Chinese government have closed a profitable avenue of investigation. Self-censorship is not always a deliberate act.

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  • Chris Atwood

    Hi, it’s Uighur, not Uighar. But on the point of your post, I think there’s a sense that talking about Islam in connection with the Kunming attacks would be somehow legitimizing the Chinese government’s position in Xinjiang, the Uighurs’ homeland, a way that most Westerners are not anxious to do. That’s also, I think, the root of the anxiety about using the “t-word” to describe what happened in Kunming.

    • Maria

      Agreed Chris.
      Just to add, as a Catholic living in Kunming, it certainly true that religion here plays a much smaller role in public life than it does in the US. That is not to say that there are not religious people, but religion is accepted to the degree that it is private and not organised in any meaningful way that would pose a threat to the civic order. By threat I mean not just through organised resistance but through proposing an alternative source of authority.
      Whatever the other factors at play, this general stance of the government towards religion surely impacts on the situation of the Uighurs – as well as the (different) situation of Christians.


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