Urumqi Unrest: China's Savvier Media Strategy

By Ford, Peter | The Christian Science Monitor, July 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Urumqi Unrest: China's Savvier Media Strategy


Ford, Peter, The Christian Science Monitor


Chinese riot police arrested several Uighurs Friday after breaking up a small demonstration in Urumqi, the capital of China's western Xinjiang Province and the scene of a riot Sunday that killed 156 people and injured more than 1,000.

Authorities arranged extra bus services out of Urumqi after China's worst ethnic violence in decades, but demand outstripped supply Friday as thousands of people poured into bus and train stations to flee the violence-wracked city.

Still, Chinese police this week succeeded in averting a major interethnic bloodbath after initially failing to control Sunday's riot.

Similarly, on the Internet, over the airwaves, and in the written media, Chinese propaganda officials utilized new and more sophisticated tactics to overcome early impressions that the authorities were to blame for the carnage and to paint a more nuanced picture.

"Officials are certainly studying the media-management techniques that are practiced elsewhere in the world," says Rebecca Mackinnon, an expert on the Chinese media at Hong Kong University. "And they actually don't work too badly."

A combination of censoring the Internet, providing Chinese readers with a wealth of reportage (however one-sided), and allowing foreign reporters to work on the ground represents a new Chinese model for handling the media, says Ms. Mackinnon.

"We've moved out of the realm of trying to control everything," she says, "and into a more subtle realm of manipulation and spin."

How Beijing changed tactics since 2008 Tibet unrest

Eighteen months ago, when unrest broke out among Tibetans, the government banned foreign reporters from a huge swath of Tibetan- inhabited western China. Denied the chance to offer firsthand accounts of events, most Western media relied heavily on exile Tibetan sources.

The result was an unmitigated international public relations disaster for Beijing, although at home few Chinese questioned the official version that the Dalai Lama had instigated the trouble that left 18 ethnic Han and Hui Chinese dead.

Last Monday, in contrast, after a demonstration by Uighur protesters had spun out of control, the government invited foreign journalists to visit Urumqi to report for themselves on what had happened. A press center was put at their disposal, and tours of the violence-stricken quarters of the city were provided.

The initial assumption among most Western observers was that most of the dead must have been Uighur demonstrators, cut down by police gunfire. Although the authorities have not given an ethnic breakdown of the victims, reporters interviewing eyewitnesses began to suspect that in fact the majority of the dead may well have been Han Chinese, killed by Uighur rioters. …

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