Update, Nov. 5, 21:30 ET: CNN has issued a statement in response to the Global Times editorial, saying “As with all opinion pieces that appear on cnn.com, the views expressed are solely those of the author and do not in any way reflect the position of CNN.”
Terrorists, freedom fighters or desperate individuals? In the wake of a fiery vehicular attack on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Monday, Oct. 28, the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party–linked newspaper, criticized CNN for running an opinion piece on its website that questioned the official claim that Muslim Uighur “terrorists” had masterminded the assault.
The attack killed five (the three occupants of the jeep and two tourists) and injured 40.
“CNN is way out of line this time,” opined the Nov. 4 Global Times editorial, referring to the CNN piece headlined “Tiananmen crash: Terrorism or cry of desperation?” and authored by Sean Roberts, a George Washington University professor who studies the Turkic Uighur ethnic group.
“It is of a vile nature to present such a view at [sic] the mainstream media,” the Global Times said.
After a near news blackout on the attack at the symbolic heart of the Chinese nation, the country’s security czar said on Nov. 1 that the violence was masterminded by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which the U.S. designated as a terrorist organization more than a decade ago. Chinese police have said they found signs with “radical extremist” words in the jeep, which had Xinjiang plates — although how those banners survived the flames that burned out the jeep is one of the many mysteries still surrounding the case.
East Turkestan is the name used by Uighurs for their homeland, which is known in Chinese as Xinjiang. Uighur separatists claim the region, the largest of the Chinese provinces, was briefly independent from China early last century. Several deadly attacks have been blamed on Uighurs in the past, including a pair of 2008 strikes in the Silk Road oasis of Kashgar and a 1997 bus bombing in Beijing. Four years ago, riots between Uighurs and China’s ethnic Han majority claimed some 200 lives in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.
Roberts says that Beijing’s “lack of transparency historically” over the conviction of Uighurs on charges of political violence is a good enough reason to doubt “the characterization of [last] Monday’s events.”
His article traced the ways in which Uighurs have been repressed in Xinjiang, ranging from limits on religious and cultural expression to their being overwhelmed by a flood of ethnic Han migrants, who tend to snap up the most lucrative jobs. “One feels compelled to question whether Monday’s alleged attack was a well-prepared terrorist act or a hastily assembled cry of desperation from a people on the extreme margins of the Chinese state’s monstrous development machine,” wrote Roberts.
Countered the Global Times: “Those involved in suicide terror attacks all have their own desperation and animosity, no matter if Al Qaeda members who attacked the West or Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel.”
This wasn’t the first time CNN has been subject to Chinese criticism. In 2008, as violence erupted between Tibetans and Han, CNN published a photo on its website that critics said presented a cropped, incomplete picture of the rioting. Although far more Tibetans than Han died during the days of bloodshed, some Chinese felt that CNN and other Western media focused too heavily on anti-Tibetan assaults, as opposed to anti-Han attacks. A website called Anti-CNN.com was established, defending China’s rule over Tibet and pointing out instances of racial discord in the West. (The nationalist website, which later changed its name, has succumbed to infighting and financial woes, according to the Economist.)
The Nov. 4 Global Times editorial sounded similar outrage. “By publishing an ill-intentioned commentary, CNN lost its reputation among Chinese readers as well as jeopardizing the image of the U.S.,” it said.