Within hours of the February 14 knife attack in Pishan county, Xinjiang, China’s state media released identical reports: Three assailants attacked people in a residential district, killing five while injuring another five, and the assailants were killed by police officers who had swiftly arrived at the scene. Only the Jiangnan Metropolitan News defied a censorship order and kept open its online comment function on this story, providing a rare glimpse into netizens’ views of the attack.

Han Chinese residents hold a Chinese national flag as paramilitary policemen in riot gear block a road at the centre of Urumqi in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region September 3, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

Although authorities had given no such information, netizens immediately jumped to the conclusion that the incident, which took place in the region home to 10 million ethnic Uyghur Muslims, was a terrorist attack by Islamists, and the victims were ethnic Han Chinese. Most remarks were virulent and derogatory, equating Islam with terrorism, calling it an “evil cult” and Muslims “dogs” and “leeches.” Muslims who sought to distinguish Islam from terrorism were dismissed as “whitewashers” by commenters.

Many netizens lamented the authorities’ “preferential treatment towards minorities,” and complained that government censorship is unfairly protecting Muslims. A number called for collective punishment: “Families of terrorists should all be killed!” wrote one, while another advocated for the eradication of “the entire [Uyghur] ethnic group.” Calls on the Jiangnan platform to demolish all mosques seemed mild in comparison.

None of the postings commented on the government’s pervasive ethnic and religious discrimination against Uyghurs. No wonder – many of these readers have no access to sources of information independent of the government’s, and those who speak up about such grievances, such as Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, are silenced and sentenced to lengthy prison terms for “splittism.”

The Chinese government has long justified censorship in minority areas as a measure to maintain “ethnic harmony.” But ironically, this censorship fuels bigotry and ignorance – heightening already-strained ethnic relations.