What some watchers of China think about the case of Ursula Gauthier

China will expel French journalist Ursula Gauthier. Why do you think China has reacted that way and should Western governments put some pressure on Beijing in such cases? Read few comments.


Andrew Nathan, Professor of Political Science, Columbia University

The expulsion shows us once again — this is not for the first time — Beijing’s intense desire to control its image overseas. Second, it shows that Beijing uses methods to achieve this end that are counterproductive, since this action does not produce a better image for China but a worse one. Perhaps they hope it will scare other journalists to write more favorably in the future, but so far that hasn’t worked, since they have been punishing journalists for years and journalists are still daring to write the truth. Third, however, and perhaps a point that is less remarked upon, is that they expelled her for telling the truth about the failure of Chinese policy in Xinjiang to win the hearts and minds of the Uyghur population. In my opinion, the Beijing authorities sincerely believe that their policies in Xinjiang are the correct ones, and they don’t understand why the Uyghurs have only become more and more alienated from Chinese rule. This is a tragedy – the blindness of the Chinese authorities to the failure of their policies and their inability to see that these policies are causing damage to their project of keeping China unified.

I know the US government has protested and lobbied with Beijing over China’s punishment of US reporters. I suppose the French government will do the same in this case. Some have suggested, however, that the Western governments retaliate in kind by expelling or denying visas to reporters for Chinese media that belong to the party or government. I don’t favor that because I think the West needs to stick to its own policy of openness to journalists.

Harold TannerProfessor of Chinese History, Department of History, University of North Texas

The case of Ursula Gauthier must, I think, be seen in the context of China’s increasing determination to control the images of China portrayed in the foreign press and other media. This context includes pressure on foreign academics (especially political scientists) to self-censor lest they lose access to China and to their Chinese contacts, pressure on Hollywood to avoid negative portrayals of China in films lest they lose access to the Chinese market, Alibaba’s recent purchase of the South China Morning Post, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ denunciation of Western historians whose work (known as the “New Qing History”) portrays the Qing as an empire which acquired Xinjiang and Tibet by force, the Chinese government’s refusal to allow the famous non-Chinese mummies from Xinjiang to be displayed in a museum in Philadelphia back in 2011, and, of course, the ongoing effort to influence the image of China through the activities of the Confucius Institutes linked to universities throughout the world. In the case of the French reporter, China’s leaders clearly took a negative view of her reporting on affairs in Xinjiang and the Uyghurs (a Turkic Muslim people who were historically the majority in the southern part of Xinjiang).  As they see it, any reporting (or writing of history, for that matter) that gives any degree of legitimacy to the complaints of the Uyghur people of the region is part and parcel of a Western attempt to give legitimacy to Uyghur separatists and thus to pry Xinjiang and its resources away from China.

The Chinese leaders see this in a particular historical context: when the Qing dynasty was overthrown by the 1911 Revolution and replaced by the Republic of China in 1912, the Russian Empire (and, after 1917, the Soviet Union) used Mongolian nationalists to pry Outer Mongolia (the current country of Mongolia) away from the Qing Empire. The British tried to use the Dalai Lama to similarly pry Tibet away, but failed. During the Second World War, the Soviet Union was involved with Uyghur nationalist movements in Xinjiang, but ultimately decided not to pursue Xinjiang independence. In the meantime, both the Republic of China under Yuan Shikai and then Chiang Kai-shek and the People’s Republic of China viewed themselves as the successor states of the Qing Empire but recast the empire as a nation-state, attempting to define all ethnic groups within China’s frontiers as a single people, sharing a common history “from time immemorial.”

Any attempts by Western historians, political scientists, or reporters to question that history or to question the idea that, for the most part, the people of various ethnic groups live in harmony with each other are deeply resented and interpreted as modern manifestations of Western imperialism, attempts to weaken and undermine the nation.

I think that any open pressure would be fruitless. The only possible way that Beijing can react to an open challenge on such an issue of principle is to reject it. Naturally, a Western government may feel obliged to make statements of regret that the Chinese government does not share their interests in freedom of speech and objective reporting, but such statements are simply decorative in function and will only elicit corresponding statements of the Chinese position. If Western governments think that it is worth their while to seriously challenge Beijing on the expulsion of a particular reporter, then they should do so through private channels (diplomatic or otherwise). Of course, if a reporter were actually arrested or imprisoned, the reporter’s government would have no option other than to publicly challenge the Chinese government.

Vincent Wei-cheng WangProfessor, Department of Political Science, University of Richmond

Whereas in the past the Chinese government has managed to keep foreign journalists in check by an annual year-end accreditation game, this case shows that Beijing will henceforth be more vocal asserting its “red line.”  Like in 2001, when China attempted to capitalize on the Global War Against Terror by equating Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan “separatism” with “terrorism,” it now sought to again enlist international sympathy (if not support) for its high-handed policies in Xinjiang.  We should not sign on to this flawed analogy.

Rather than dismissing the Gauthier case as sui generis, western governments should be concerned about the worrying trends and more strongly support their journalists working in China.

Colin Mackerras, Emeritus Professor, International Business and Asian Studies, Griffith University

The reason why the Chinese reacted as they did is, in my opinion, twofold. Firstly, things are tightening for journalism in China in the last few months in general and, in particular, with regards to terrorism and the situation in Xinjiang. Secondly, I think they are reacting to a worsening situation on terrorism in many parts of the world, including Xinjiang, Paris, Lebanon, Africa, and elsewhere.

I thought the reaction of the French government (dated 25 December) was sensible and measured. For Western governments to put more pressure on Beijing would, in my opinion, be futile.

Personally, I found Ursula Gauthier’s article deeply offensive. For anybody to react to sympathy for an act of terrorism with a charge of hypocrisy is, to me, deeply offensive whoever does it. For her to analyze the situation in Xinjiang only as persecution of Uygurs is to me very one-sided and insensitive. She quotes one source only for her observations (namely Nicolas Becquelin, a scholar whom I respect but whose work I think is very biased.) I’ve actually done quite a bit of study of the Uygur situation over the decades, and it seems to be extremely complex. The main point I get from recent times is that terrorism is indeed increasing and it’s by no means all China’s fault. Considering the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi actually mentioned China as a target in his July 2014 Mosul speech, the Chinese would be irresponsible if they didn’t try to take some counter-measures. From what I’ve read, there are indeed ISIS recruits from Xinjiang. I don’t know the precise situation with ETIM at present, but for me what matters is the overall situation with extremist terrorism, and it’s something I think is very worrying.

People have argued about terrorism, and what one considers terrorist, another does not. Unfortunately the aphorism that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” is still true. For me, however, terrorism is the deliberate targeting of non-combatants to create terror for political purposes”. I think most people agree that what happened in Paris was terrorism. I think what happened in Xinjiang, and has been happening quite a bit over the last few years (Kunming, Tiananmen, several incidents in Xinjiang), is also terrorism. The Xinhua commentary said Ursula Gauthier was supporting terrorism. She says she’s not. As I see it, Ursula Gauthier’s article supports what the Chinese see as terrorism, but she does not think is terrorism.

Of course the whole episode is very unfortunate and won’t do anything to improve the situation in any way. For my part, I support freedom of the press. To go out of one’s way to be offensive is praised as freedom in the West, but not in a lot of other places. I think the situation in Xinjiang is dangerous and getting more so.

Lucien Ellington, Director, Asia Program, Editor, Education About Asia, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

The Uighur situation is complex since there seems to be a mixture of genuine Chinese concern about some possible Uighur terrorist elements as well as a long history of PRC Government oppression of Uighurs. However, I’ve met Melissa Chan, the Chinese-American that the PRC Government expelled for her two quite solid exposes of eminent domain violations, and Provincial Off-the-Record “Black Jails.” I was able to view the video clips of her stories and engage in small group discussion with Ms. Chan who went on to become a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. In my opinion, she was expelled because the authoritarian one party regime will not tolerate stories that constitute legitimate critiques about violations of what liberal democracies consider to be guaranteed individual rights. I am not confident that Western pressure can change this situation now.

Kerry BrownProfessor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College, London

I guess this case just shows how sensitive the Chinese government now are to this issue (not that they have ever been that relaxed about it). and how emboldened they feel because their logic is probably that for the French at least, unity over attacking terrorism outweighs defence of a journalist. This is an opportunistic move by the Chinese, but follows a pattern of being harsh to journalists which is decades old. In the Cultural revolution, they beat up and imprisoned non Chinese journalists. Now they simply kick them out of the country. Progress of sorts, I guess!

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One Response

  1. Since when did Collin Mackaress became a mouthpiece of the Chinese communist regime??? It is really sad to see that a scholar of his stature now justifying the expulsion of Ursula while the whole free world is condemning it. It’s the fact that the situation in China has become terrible after Xi Jinping became president. If you want to blame the deteriorating situation in Xinjiang, Tibet and China, don’t blame the Uyghurs, Tibetans and Chinese human rights activists and lawyers as well as foreign reporters, blame the goddamn CCP. That’s the root of all evil in China.

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