It was the next day after the outbreak of ethnic conflicts in Xinjiang when foreign journalists received a surprise invitation from the State Council Information Office to go on an official trip to Urumqi, the venue where the mass incidents took place, so that they could “know better about the riots”.
Journalists such as Michael Wine from New York Times were quick to point out how this unusual step might have indicated a new and more sophisticated approach to information control:
It is a far cry from Beijing’s reaction 11 years ago to ethnic violence elsewhere in Xinjiang, when officials sealed off an entire city and refused to say what happened or how many people had died. And it reflects lessons learned from the military crackdown in Tibet 17 months ago. While foreign reporters were banned from Tibet, then and now, Chinese authorities rallied domestic support by blaming outside agitators, but were widely condemned overseas.
As the Internet and other media raise new challenges to China’s version of the truth, China is deploying new methods not just to suppress bad news at the source, but to spin whatever unflattering tidbits escape its control.
At Urumqi, the journalists had free access to a media centre with unrestricted internet connection, and affordable accommodation, and police protection and first-hand encounters with rioters in action. Meanwhile, the Information Office has made no apologies in offering their versions of the story, in the forms of compact discs filled with images and video clips prepared by state news agencies.
Their new initiatives have been greeted with cautious approval by some and outright rejection by others. Gady Epstein of Forbes described it as a clever publicity effort on the part of Chinese authorities “to define the story before the story defined them”. Robert Mackey of New York Times found these attempts at media management by the Chinese government contemptible. For Mackey, the tour went badly awry today when hundreds of Uighur protesters made an unscheduled appearance. The situation further deteriorated later in the afternoon when a Han Chinese mob took to the streets in Urumqi in hunt for Uighur Muslims.
That publicity stunt did serve the Chinese Propaganda Department’s purposes of temporarily diverting media attention away from mass arrests and strict Internet control that have been fermenting public outcries behind the scenes. But it also masks a potential danger of a government relying too much on propaganda and censorship as a way to harness public opinion. This report from The Australian has put it all in a nutshell:
THE fatal riots in China’s wild west underscore the difficulties that Beijing faces in maintaining order when its tight grip on media boosts the credibility of dangerous rumours.
And the lack of alternative outlets to disagree or to hold authorities accountable – where there are no independent courts or political representatives – drives people on to the streets, sometimes with pent-up anger about myriad grievances.
Incidentally, both Sunday’s riot and today’s mob revenge were believed to have been triggered by rumours.
For a summary of today’s events, I recommend THIS GUARDIAN REPORT by Tania Branigan from Urumqi. She puts a human face to an otherwise confusing situation. There is also a LINK to an accompanying video.