On July 23, 2010, Xinjiang journalist Gehret Niyaz was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the crime of “endangering national security.” This is the stiffest sentence we have seen for any journalist in China in recent years. While his defense lawyers have launched an appeal, the case has prompted an international campaign for his support. Inside China, scores of intellectuals put their necks on the line last week by issuing an open call for “the release of the Xinjiang journalist, and respect for freedom of expression.”
But media in Hong Kong have been eerily silent on the Niyaz case.
After the verdict was handed down, most Hong Kong media settled on Reuters and BBC wire content. There was little follow-up coverage, and no attempt to dig deeper into the story. The only notable exception was coverage by Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Weekly). It so happens that one of the reasons Niyaz was found guilty was that he granted an exclusive interview to Yazhou Zhoukan after last year’s July 5 riots in Urumqi.
This is one reason Niyaz’s fate deserves much greater attention from the people of Hong Kong. The use of an interview with Hong Kong media as evidence in proving guilt amounts to killing a chicken to frighten the monkeys. It is a warning to the Xinjiang and Chinese public that talking to media from outside China could land someone in Jail. This has a chilling effect on news gathering activities by Hong Kong media inside China.
Niyaz is a public intellectual who has the right to speak his mind. He is also entitled to a fair trial. Based on everything we know about Niyaz, he is a journalist and a patriot. As a Uighur, he is also deeply passionate about his people and Xinjiang. On Xinjiang’s ideological spectrum, he is a moderate who is opposed to the separatist cause.
One of the signers of the open letter, Xu Youyu (徐友渔), a prominent liberal academic, told media that, “Everyone believes Niyaz is a moderate voice, that he encourages interaction between Han Chinese and Uyghurs in a spirit of friendship, and that he has a rational approach. We believe that such a rational person is particularly essential to the handling of ethnic issues. And we urgently hope his treatment does not serve as a precedent for similar actions against others.”
It is puzzling that a person of Niyaz’s convictions has become a target of the authorities, and this raises more fundamental questions about the Party’s credibility, and their handle on the situation in Xinjiang.
In his Selected Works, Chair Mao wrote from the outset that “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution.” If the Chinese authorities are incapable of distinguishing its friends from its enemies, how do they expect to win confidence in Xinjiang or anywhere else? How can they possibly formulate workable policies on Xinjiang and issues of ethnic minorities?
51 year-old Gehret Niyaz is a Xinjiang native. He graduated from the Chinese Studies department at the Central University of Nationalities in Beijing. He writes in Chinese, and works for the party-state press. He was formerly head of editorial desk at Xinjiang Legal News, a reporter for Xinjiang Economic News, and an editor and manager at Uighur Online. Xinjiang Legal News is published by Xinjiang Daily, the official paper of the Xinjiang party leadership.
Niyaz was detained on October 1, 2009, and he was sentenced in a closed trial. Chinese authorities have revealed nothing about the trial proceedings.
It is fair to say that Niyaz is a “party media” journalist, and everything about his public statements and background suggest he should be considered a “friend” by the CCP. His weblog, “The Cultural Perspectives of a Uighur Journalist,” still available on the Web, provides a glimpse into his thinking.
For example, Niyaz fiercely criticizes Uyghur businesswoman and activist Rebiya Kadeer, who is much hated by the CCP, charging that she has “no head for politics” and that “she cannot represent the interests of the Uighur people.” Kadeer has been singled out by Chinese authorities as “an outside terrorist and a prominent proponent of separatism and extremism,” as well as the “black hand” behind the July 5, 2009, unrest in Urumqi.
In his writings on affairs in Xinjiang, Niyaz is frank about problems of his own people living in the mainland — for example, drug use and trafficking, prostitution, organized crime, and so forth. He has encouraged the leadership in Xinjiang to tackle these problems head on.
And Niyaz does not mince words in his criticism of the local authorities in Xinjiang: “To put it less politely, if the authorities do not put the people first, if they do not resolve these social problems that bring increasingly disastrous consequences . . . the top party leadership and government officials might just as well return home and eat their sweet potatoes,” he writes.
In his blogs, Niyaz’s writes about Uighur culture and history, and relations with Han Chinese. His tone is always moderate, inclusive and reasoned.
Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at the Central Nationalities University in Beijing and director of Uighur Online, told ABC Radio Australia: “He [Niyaz] should be someone just like the government people. He holds the same views as the government. He thinks of himself as a cadre trained by the Chinese Communist Party. I never imagined that the authorities would take measures against him like they have.”
Niyaz’s remarks after Urumqi riots were among the most objective and factual available, deserving of careful consideration by state leaders. Instead, his well-meant words have been leveled against him as evidence of his crimes.
In his interview with Yazhou Zhoukan, Niyaz mentioned that the day before the riots he sent warnings to local authorities. On July 5, the day of the riots, he met with high-level Xinjiang leaders to suggest that authorities should take urgent action to address popular discontent and to prevent violence. His suggestions were ignored. According to media reports, Niyaz admitted his interview with Yazhou Zhoukan during his trial, but said his intentions were good and that he was only acting as a responsible citizen and journalist.
So far, most of the reports on the Niyaz case have come from online media and blogs, from Western human rights groups, and from foreign media, including ABC Radio Australia and Deutsche Welle.
Reporting on Xinjiang is difficult and requires sustained effort. But the Hong Kong media can do much more. This is their professional obligation as media working in a free society.
Three other journalists from Uighur Online were also found guilty in July of “endangering national security” and were given sentences of between 3 and 10 years. We call on prosecuting authorities in China conduct a fair and transparent review of the Niyaz case and the cases involving the three online journalists. This is the only way for the Chinese government to allay public concerns and to defend its own credibility.
A version of this article appeared in Chinese in Hong Kong Economic Times.