Before the start of the Olympics there was widespread attention to a bombing and attack in Kashgar, East Turkestan (Chinese: Xinjiang). The only reports of the bombing came from Chinese state media, which even then included contradictory and varying accounts of what had happened. No foreign media was reported from Kashgar on the attack and it took a number of days before independent journalists were even able to follow-up with coverage on the aftermath.
Today the New York Times has a long report on the Kashgar attack based on the testimony and photographs of three foreign tourists who witnessed the incident. Their account casts serious doubts on the official Chinese telling of the attack and even raise the possibility that the attack was, at least in part, staged by the Chinese military.
The friend said: “The first thing I remember seeing was that truck in the wall in the building across the street. I saw a pile of about 15 people. All their limbs were twisted every which way. There was a gentleman whose head was pressed against the pavement with a big puddle of blood.”
“I remember just thinking, ‘It’s surreal,’ ” he said. “I had this surreal feeling: What is really happening?”
The tourists said the scene turned even more bizarre.
One or two men dressed in green uniforms took out machetes and began hacking away at one or two other men dressed in the same type of uniforms on the ground.
“A lot of confusion came when two gentlemen, it looked like they were military officers — they were wearing military uniforms, too — and it looked like they were hitting other military people on the ground with machetes,” the friend said.
“That instantly confused us,” he said. “All three of us were wondering: ‘Why are they hitting other military people?’ ”
The photographer grabbed a camera for the first time and crouched down by the window. His first photograph has a digital time stamp of 8:04 a.m., and his last is at 8:07 a.m. The first frames are blurry, and the action is mostly obscured by a tree. But it is clear that there are several police officers surrounding one or more figures by the sidewalk.
The photographer said that there had been two men in green uniforms on their knees facing his hotel and their hands seemed to be bound behind their backs. Another uniformed man began hitting one of them with a machete, he said.
“The guy who was receiving the hack was covered in blood,” he said. “A lot of the policemen were covered in blood. Some were walking around on the street pretty aimlessly. Some were sitting on the curb, in shock I guess. Some were running around holding their necks.”
The friend recalled a slightly different version of the event. He said he had seen two uniformed men with machetes hacking away at two men lying on their backs. “I do kind of remember one of them moving,” he said. “He was definitely injured but still kind of trying to squirm around.”
The relative also saw something different. He said a man in a green uniform walked from the direction of the truck. “A policeman who wasn’t injured ran over and started hitting him with a machete,” the relative said. “He hit him a few times, then this guy started fighting him back.”
After being hit several times by the machete, the uniformed man fell down, and at least one other police officer came over to kick him, the relative said.
It became clear to the tourists that the men with machetes were almost certainly paramilitary officers, and not insurgents, because they mingled freely with other officers on the scene.
While all this was happening, the three tourists said, a small bang came from the truck. It sounded like a car backfiring, the friend said. Black smoke billowed from the front of the truck.
The machete attack lasted a minute or two, the tourists said. One uniformed man then handed his machete to another uniformed man who had a machete, the friend said. One of the photographs shows a man walking around clutching two machetes in one hand. Another photograph shows a uniformed man carrying a rifle with a bayonet, a rare weapon in China. [Emphasis added]
At minimum, the accounts of these tourists and the photos they produced contradict the official Chinese story of a two Uighur separatists running an intense attack with bombs and machetes following the truck crash. The details on all sides are contradictory, but it seems clear that the government line is not what happened.
What did the official line achieve, though? The story of a highly effective attack by Uighur separatists days before the start of the Beijing Olympics generated strong sympathy for China in international circles. It also gave a degree of leeway to the Chinese for their intense military crackdown that was ongoing before and during the Olympics. Coverage of East Turkestan during the Games justified the intense security presence in large part on this attack, though other attacks took place in the same time period, which the Chinese government credited to the East Turkestan Independence Movement — a previously unknown separatist group.
I don’t think it is overly cynical to say that today’s Times story makes a convincing case that the Chinese government exploited the story of this attack and bent it in such a way to increase the attack’s severity. If it even was an attack, which the witness testimony in the article belies. Moreover, because the Chinese government did not give foreign journalists access to material needed to independently confirm the details of the attack after happened, there was no independent confirmation of what state media reported. This speaks to the need for China to lift their restrictions on foreign press in East Turkestan, as well as in Tibet. When the only source of information is the Chinese government, the world is not able to know what is happening inside their occupied territories.