Bob Green, founder of Hong Kong’s Amazing Grace Elephant Company, worked during the Cultural Revolution as a radio newsman for US network NBC. He and his colleagues regularly drove a van with a long antenna to a mountaintop near Hong Kong’s border with the mainland to hold a teacup against the Bamboo Curtain, monitoring scratchy broadcasts of Radio Beijing.
That scramble for hints of news from China is a far cry from the current unrest in Uruumqi, where Chinese government media is feeding international broadcasters demonstration footage and man on the street sound bites from Xinjiang Province’s capital. When large scale clashes between Xinjiang’s majority ethnic Uighurs and China’s majority Han Chinese began in July, China facilitated foreign media travel to report from this area of remote northwestern China.
Some observers attribute the change to lessons Chinese authorities learned from their unsuccessful media clampdown in response to rioting in Tibet in early 2008. But the trend dates back to March 2007 rioting in Zhushan in Hunan Province, as I noted then in Asia Times.
When China opens up is less interesting than why. The Zhushan riots erupted over economic issues, specifically local bus fares, at a time when there was a lot rumbling about restive Chinese workers. China’s rulers took the opportunity to show foreign investors that they still knew how to handle unrest over pocketbook issues.
When the Tibet rioting broke out, the combination of pre-Olympic jitters and the sharply drawn disagreement between China (supported by the vast majority of its citizens) and the rest of the world over Tibet instinctively triggered a media blackout. But once China realized that it couldn’t block the news, it tested many of the same media management techniques that it’s now using more successfully in Xinjiang.
For example, in Tibet China learned that tightly controlled press tours can backfire. Reporters in Lhasa glossed over the spoon-fed government gruel in favor of unscripted nibbles with disgruntled monks. So, in Urumqui, China cut reporters loose with plenty of monitoring but little overt guidance, making it harder for them to find unfavorable stories and for unwelcome sources to find them.
In its Tibet and Xinjiang riot narratives, China portrays ungrateful backward minority people resisting Chinese efforts to lift them out of darkness and poverty by (ignorantly) attacking innocent Han Chinese. This argument plays very well in the domestic audience. It may also resonate in the overseas Chinese community, particularly in Asia, where many believe Chinese racial and cultural superiority contributes to their economic success. (See Coloring Judgment [July 12, 2009] on this blog for the Malaysian example.)
Overseas, affection for the Dalai Lama and Tibet culture undermines the portrait of Tibetan inferiority. But in Xinjiang, giving reporters the opportunity to interview Chinese victims of violence and conciliatory Uighurs paints a sympathetic portrait of earnest working people being victimized by barbaric thugs, eliciting global sympathy.
For Tibet, China’s violent separatist agitator argument also swells nationalist pride domestically but falls flat overseas. The Dalai Lama, after all, is a Nobel Peace laureate. In Xinjiang, Muslim Uighurs provide bait for links to al-Qaeda and other violent Islamists, and China consistently invites media to make the connection. Moreover, there’s no Uighur Dalai Lama.
While watching nuance and spin, remember that China still controls the big picture for all media. Every local and foreign reporter knows that crossing certain lines risks expulsion or worse, but China rarely draws those lines clearly or in advance. So reporters generally limit themselves more than government rules would dare mandate. Reporters that exceed the limits of tolerance don’t report for very long. That’s the autocrats’ ultimate weapon in media management, and China is never afraid to go nuclear to control the news.
Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.