Written by J. Michael Cole

There’s a reason why China ranks No. 176 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2015 World Press Freedom Index, only better than Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan and Syria. Its contempt for journalists, both domestic and foreign, who refuse to toe Beijing’s stridently nationalistic and increasingly paranoid line is boundless. A recent incident involving a French journalist highlights why China fully deserves the dishonor of being in the bottom five.

The controversy started with an article, published on Nov. 18, by Ursula Gauthier, a Beijing-based correspondent for the French news magazine L’Obs (formerly known as Le Nouvel Observateur). Titled “Après les attentats, la solidarité de la Chine n’est pas sans arrière-pensées” (“after the attacks, China has ulterior motives”), Gauthier’s article made the mistake — in Beijing’s eyes, that is — of pointing out the fundamental differences between the type of nihilistic international terrorism by the Islamic State that struck Paris last month and the local retributive violence that has flared occasionally in Xinjiang.

Needless to say, Beijing, which had quickly expressed its solidarity with France following the terrorist attacks, didn’t appreciate what it regarded as a double standard. Worse, it didn’t appreciate the reminder that it is, for all intents and purposes, an occupying power in Xinjiang, where economic disparity and a campaign that borders on ethnic cleansing has fomented widespread discontent.

China’s reaction to Ms. Gauthier’s article was to vilify her in official media. Two days after the publication of her article, the Global Times ran an editorial accusing the French correspondent of being “anti China” and disregarding the Chinese victims of Uighur “terrorism,” two claims that were outright distortions of her position on the subject. The following day, the Times increased the pressure with a second editorial, this one accusing her of supporting terrorism and separatism. The newspaper also enjoined the French government to reprimand Gauthier or else bilateral relations would suffer the consequences. By then, several thousand heinous messages attacking the foreign journalist had appeared on the Times web site. On Nov. 23, the English-language China Daily continued the assault by repeating the content of the two Global Times editorials. During a regular press conference on Dec. 2, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying echoed the editorials by accusing Western media of having “double standards” when it comes to terrorism in China.

More troubling still is the fact that photos of Ms. Gauthier, as well as her residential address, have been leaked to the public. Given that some of the posts criticizing her included death threats, the release of her personal information compromises her safety. Gauthier is also awaiting renewal by MOFA of her press credentials. Given the many precedents, it wouldn’t be surprising if the said renewal failed to materialize, which would force Gauthier, who stands by her article, to leave the country.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China has expressed “deep concern” over the state-sanctioned intimidation of a foreign correspondent.

The real question, which lies at the heart of the problem, is whether Ms. Gauthier indeed, as Beijing claims, had double standards. For years, Chinese authorities have sought to establish a link between the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and international terrorist networks including al-Qaeda and IS. One month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., Beijing had published a paper titled “Terrorist Activities Perpetrated by ‘Eastern Turkistan’ Organizations and their Ties with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.” At the time, the U.S. did not regard ETIM as a terrorist organization and did so in 2002, ostensibly as a quid pro quo to placate Beijing and ensure it would not block Washington’s efforts to invade Iraq.

Beijing was trying to depict its Uighur problem in Xinjiang as part of the global Islamic terrorist threat. It certainly wasn’t alone doing so. Hardline Israeli officials also quickly moved to portray the Palestinian problem (as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah) as one and the same with the global jihad that Osama bin Laden had launched.

The problem with those efforts is that they are ahistorical and misleading. Although Palestinian militant organizations, as well as Hezbollah, have launched several attacks against innocent civilians in recent years — attacks that do meet the definition of terrorism — they were nevertheless part of a campaign of resistance against the illegal occupation of their territory. In other words, violent though they may be, groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Lebanese Hezbollah are primarily domestic organizations acting on behalf of a nationalist goal (“liberation”). Consequently, those organizations have not launched a global campaign against “distant” enemies, even if the U.S. is regarded as a staunch supporter of Israel. Hamas and Hezbollah have not, and will not, attack random targets across Europe, North America or East Asia as al-Qaeda, and now IS, have done.

The same applies to ETIM, whose very existence as a group, let alone ties to international terrorism, are very much in doubt. Whatever terrorism Uyghurs have engaged in — and Ms. Gauthier never denied that such acts have occurred — isn’t part of a global campaign or plans to spread Islam across the globe; it is, rather, fueled by the same nationalist sentiment, the everyday grievances of an occupied people, that have inspired groups like Hamas, PIJ and Hezbollah to take action. And just as Hamas cannot hope to survive a direct confrontation with the IDF, Uyghur “extremists” know they cannot take on the People’s Liberation Army or the even better funded People’s Armed Police and hope to survive. In the context of resistance, terrorism is the weapon of the weak. Whether it is legitimate is open to question. But equating this kind of local violence with the psychopathic campaign that IS has launched against the entire world (even countries like Taiwan that have absolutely nothing to do with the situation in Syria and Iraq) is not only misleading: it ensures that proper solutions to the problem will remain out of reach. IS has no goal but expansion; ETIM, if such a group even exists, is the result of territorial occupation, inequality, and ethic cleansing. A peaceful solution to the Xinjiang (and Palestinian) problem does exist; it is hard to imagine one with regards to IS.

For all its faults, Israel (ranked No. 101 in the RSF index) hasn’t singled out foreign correspondents that were critical of its actions in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and South Lebanon in the way Beijing has. Deplorably, some Palestinian journalists have been deliberately tear-gassed, but overall international media have been able to continue to operate in Israel regardless of their position on the conflict. Moreover, despite stepped up controls during military offensives, domestic media have continued to provide some of the harshest criticism of Israeli actions in the neighborhood, something that would be unthinkable in China.

China and Israel face a similar “terrorism” problem. The latter, however, has nevertheless demonstrated that it is possible to criticize the government policy of occupation. The possibility of future resolution lies in that ability to openly criticize the authorities. Denial and censorship only promise future cycles of Uighur grievance and Han deaths.

The assault on Ms. Gauthier occurs at a time when Beijing authorities are tightening their grip on the media and the Internet, which has further narrowed the space available for those who seek solutions to the formidable challenges facing China. Victimizing foreign journalists who challenge Beijing’s assumptions, unleashing vitriolic populism and playing the traditional “victim” card is hardly the behavior of a great, self-assured power.

J Michael Cole is a Taipei-based analyst and writer and a  Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute. Image credit: CC by Andrew An/Flickr.