Even the state-controlled media were grumpy. We were in the Xinjiang Room at the Great Hall of the People (abbreviated in English, charmingly, as the G-HOP). Once a year, delegates from the National People’s Congress, China’s meek legislature, gather on the western edge of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square ostensibly to debate policy and make laws. In reality, the rubber stamps are raised aloft — and they come down in cheerful, communist-enthralled unison.
The Xinjiang Room is named after the autonomous region of Xinjiang in China’s northwest, which occupies one-sixth of the nation’s landmass. Xinjiang is famous for its melons and flatbread, mosques and natural-gas reserves. If that doesn't sound very Chinese it’s because Xinjiang culturally is much more Central Asian than East Asian. In fact, Xinjiang’s name means New Frontier, and the region was only given that appellation in 1884 when China’s Qing dynasty had conquered its population of ethnic Uighurs and other minorities. Since then, the region has chafed against rule from Beijing, which is farther from Xinjiang’s Silk Road oases than Baghdad is. Memories of two short-lived republics of East Turkestan, as some Uighurs prefer to think of their homeland, have heightened separatist dreams ever since.
The G-HOP room we were all crammed into had picturesque decorations on the wall of snow-capped mountains and happy ethnic minorities. A metallic bas-relief showed smokestacks that looked very productive, indeed. And from the handpicked Xinjiang delegates before us, we heard, in excruciating detail, just how happy and productive and blessed the region was to be ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. One official mentioned that he had read Premier Li Keqiang’s turgid work report from the day before and had counted the word reform 77 times. He paused for effect. A journalist from an official Chinese news agency sitting next to me snorted with contempt. Then he went back to his laptop, where he had been checking out designer belts on an e-commerce site.
There was, to be fair, an acknowledgment that not all was idyllic or improving rapidly. After all, Uighurs who aren’t G-HOP denizens complain of repression ranging from limits on worship to inferior career opportunities compared with the Han, China’s ethnic majority. We all knew that clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang had claimed more than 100 lives in the past year. So journalists with eyes glazed from the cotton-yield statistics and aviation-hub descriptions perked up nearly two hours into the delegation meeting when one official mentioned the word terrorism. We listened to how Xinjiang planned to dedicate a 13,500 security force to “maintaining stability.” Some 5,000 boots were already on the ground.
For many of us, this was why we were in the room. On March 1, black-clad assailants had unleashed a terrorism spree in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, stabbing and slashing passersby. By the time their rampage had ended, 29 people had been killed and more than 140 injured. The government has blamed the attack on “separatists from Xinjiang” who were also terrorists bent on jihad. We wanted to know more. Who were they and where in Xinjiang were they from? Should we expect more terrorism to come from disgruntled Uighurs? Were the Kunming attackers jihadis or were they more motivated by separatism? Could there be something else too that triggered this horrific mass murder? What could the government do to win hearts and minds in a tense, restive region?
But the chairman of Xinjiang's regional government, Nur Bekri, preferred to talk about crackdowns. He described the long history of rebellion in the Uighur homeland:
Xinjiang has entered a sharp antiseparatist activity period, an active period of violence and terrorist attacks. We can't rule out that there are foreign forces with ulterior motives behind it. What they don't want to see is China united, strong and under the leadership of the Communist Party. They were inciting and operating behind it. We will be highly alert to those forces.
But save the planted press-conference question that unleashed the Xinjiang chairman’s strike-hard speech, we heard nothing much further that connected to what some Chinese are calling China’s 9/11. Bekri wrapped up the terrorism question with a cheerful thought:
History and reality have shown that the Communist Party of China is a loyal representative of the interests of people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang. Socialism is a broad road of prosperity for people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang. The great homeland is a beautiful home of happy life for people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.
The rest of the questions, all presumably staged since the NPC representatives just happened to have all the right stats on hand to answer them, elicited mind-numbing answers. In fact, when the Xinjiang regional governnment's vice chairman Huang Wei got to point No. 15 of his answer to a softball question on development and people’s livelihood, the media — foreign, state-controlled, semicensored, all of us — rebelled. Groans echoed through the Xinjiang Room. “Enough,” yelled one Chinese reporter. The vice chairman was undeterred. “Point No. 16,” he continued. The state-media reporter next to me went back to his online shopping.
But then, a postscript: as Xinjiang’s party secretary Zhang Chunxian tried to leave the Xinjiang Room, a media scrum descended. Zhang, a Han Chinese like nearly all of the men who have held the highest-level post in the Uighur autonomous region, spoke his mind. The main reason for the terrorism in Xinjiang was, drum roll: the flow of information via the Internet. Zhang said that nearly all terrorism in Xinjiang was aided by terrorists jumping the Great Firewall constructed by China’s state censors. To do so, the terrorists — just like the state-media journalists in the Xinjiang Room accessing Google, Twitter or other banned sites on their laptops — had used virtual private networks, or VPNs. Zhang said terrorists had used VPNs, many of which are paid services, to access jihadi videos. (I use a VPN to check Gmail and Facebook, file stories online and read pretty much any news that’s interesting; expat life would be difficult without one.)
The Xinjiang party chief scoffed at a question suggesting that a government crackdown might have contributed to hardening sentiment among Uighurs. Zhang was the one who helped restore the Internet in Xinjiang after it had been mostly severed for nearly a year because of 2009 race riots that killed at least 200 people, many Han. But here he was blaming VPNs for Xinjiang’s terrorism problem. And with that, journalists filed out of the G-HOP.
— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing