British Conservative minister George Osborne’s recent visit to the Xinjiang (or East Turkestan) region of China in a bid to boost economic ties between the two countries raises several questions regarding development and human rights in China.
Following the visit to the troubled, now-minority Muslim Uighur region, Osborne stated Britain can bring “economic development and rising prosperity and higher living standards” to regions like Xinjiang, “because we’ll be investing through British companies in infrastructure there, and in education there… and that has got to be a good thing”.
It’s a wonder that Osborne didn’t mention political development (such as advocation, and education for self-determination and individual rights) as a point of focus alongside typical economic development, as China is notorious for human rights violations and oppression, particularly in Xinjiang. Is this a continuation of the outdated development approach that such organisations as the UK’s Department for International Development employ, or is Downing Street afraid of upsetting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and losing out on large-scale money-making schemes such as those taking place in Xinjiang?
Prior to the visit, human rights activists warned that Osbourne could become a propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist party. This can be dangerous for regions where communications are heavily regulated and inhabitants cannot speak out for themselves. Radio Free Asia (RFA), a US-funded news group, is one of the only reliable sources of information about conflicts in Xinjiang, as most other media is state-run, meaning the CCP control what is reported and what isn’t.
RFA reports news in ten languages (nine of which are Asian), focussing on issues in developing Asian countries, particularly those with communist histories. They use many forms of new media to broadcast information, including their official website, social networking, and video streaming websites.
Entities such as RFA are important in regions where state control is absolute, perhaps no more than in Xinjiang, where, in 2009, internet and mobile phone text messaging services were shut down for ten months by the CCP. As well as emphasising the need for new media in spreading independent and unaffected news, this incident highlights the difficulties in employing such media in countries under authoritarian regimes. This leads to the question: How do people gain access to new media when their means of access are taken away?