Thursday, 23 July 2009.

China is experiencing mounting unrest virtually everywhere in the country

The root cause of this is China’s unbridled capitalism coupled to the unrelenting dictatorial rule of the ‘Communist Party’. The recent unrest in Xinjiang, what Paul Woodward in The National has called the “greatest outbreak of violence since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989”, provides a good example of the government’s increasingly sophisticated manipulation of the media. According to the New Yorker, three or four years ago the Chinese authorities would punish any journalist who covered or discussed unrest in a way that might suggest social tension in the countryside. During and after the unrest in Tibet a year and a half ago, the Chinese government severely curbed overseas reporting, but insured that images of Han Chinese civilians being targeted by rioters were broadcast extensively. It manipulated the resulting Han nationalist backlash to deflect criticism of its pro-rich policies and insure a relatively untroubled Olympic Games. Since then, official media policy has undergone further changes.

David Bandurski of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong says that the new method of news coverage is part of a fundamental shift in the ruling party’s strategy to what he and colleagues call “Control 2.0”. This method has what these researchers call “overtures of transparency within the context of tightening control”. Bandurski says that, “An important part of this is that there is a much faster release of information though the official media. In the face of the media revolution the state has taken a sharp turn towards grabbing the initiative.”

According to Bandurski, as mentioned in Time Magazine in November 2008, “Control 2.0” (the Chinese government of course does not use this term) could be seen as dating from a policy decision of President Hu Jintao in 2007 and was boosted by a speech in June of 2008 calling for both traditional and new media to strengthen what Hu called “guidance” of public opinion. According to Bandurski this is a reaction to vastly increasing unrest all throughout China. Rather than old-style suppression, the government attempts to frame the debate and sets limits on discussion. Part of this policy is that reporting is encouraged by traditional CCP controlled newspapers but is banned by the newer generation of more sensationalist urban tabloids becoming popular in cities which rely on circulation profits. In addition reporting is focused on labor and ethnic unrest, which is due to long-term grievances, and attention is not given to unrest directed specifically at CCP rule.

According to Bandursky the Chongqing taxi strike and the rolling wave of strikes after this provided a test of the new media techniques. There was extensive media coverage of the strikes and much attention given to Politburo member Bo Xilai’s negotiations to end the strike. Reporting was tilted in a direction emphasizing the government’s compassion and attempts to find a solution. The downside of this method, however, was illustrated by Time magazine: “the continuing wave of taxi strikes underlines a danger that the more upfront coverage of controversial issues carries with it: the danger of copycat incidents in other parts of the country.

Bandurski and the China Media Project say that Chinese media coverage of the unrest in Shishou, Hubei province, in June was seen as a failure of the new media policy. The official Xinhua News Agency did not report the incident right away and there was a long delay in reporting that the area was calm and the unrest quelled. This slowness to react was criticized by the People’s Daily and other official media. The subsequent coverage of the unrest in Urumqi however was different.

The Christian Science Monitor quoted Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on Chinese media at the University of Hong Kong, who says officials are studying media control techniques that are practiced elsewhere in the world. She goes on to say that these techniques “actually don’t work too badly”. Although not mentioned by MacKinnon these are techniques of persuasion and public relations practiced by Western governments and largely developed in the U.S. around the time of the First World War by Walter Lippman, Edward Bernays, and others discussed in the 1988 book  “The Manufacture of Consent” by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman.

The CS Monitor compares the handling of the unrest in Tibet, which it calls a “public relations disaster for Beijing” with the more recent crisis in Urumqi. During and after the Tibet unrest the government moved to block the Internet, shut down Youtube (which is still blocked), moved to restrict TV and radio broadcasts of the unrest, blocked foreign media, and even tore down private and village-owned satellite dishes. MacKinnon mention that unlike in Tibet, foreign journalists were allowed into Xinjiang after the unrest but their movements were closely supervised and monitored. Although not mentioned by MacKinnon, this would seem to be similar to the U.S. policy of only allowing journalists to report on Iraq war who were “embedded” and whose movements were controlled by the U.S. military.
During and after the unrest in Urumqi the government’s media control took two directions. The Chinese government reacted quickly. As in Tibet communication technology was controlled. Mobile phone calls to Urumqi and the surrounding area were quickly blocked. The photo sharing website Twitter was shut down. Chinese search engines were purged of any references to the unrest. On the other hand, state TV not only admitted there was unrest but gave a great deal of coverage to it. Broadcast footage emphasized scenes of violence by the Uyghur Muslim minority against Han Chinese civilians. There were a few scenes of violence of Han against Uyghur, to give an illusion of balance in news coverage and thus enhance credibility.

As in Tibet “outside agitators” who were intent on “splitting China” were blamed for the violence. During the crisis in Tibet the Dalai Lama was blamed and during the unrest in Xinjiang, Rebiya Kadeer, head of the World Uyghur Congress was blamed. There was no discussion of corruption or oppression of workers leading to the unrest. A recent TV news roundtable broadcast in Beijing on the CCTV English language news broadcast interviewed several Chinese “anti-terrorism experts”. The discussion focused on a variety of Islamic terrorist groups said to be operating in Xinjiang, intent on splitting China. It was strongly implied by the interviewer and the “experts” that the U.S. and other Western countries should cooperate with the Chinese government in fighting the common enemy of “Muslim extremism”. There was no mention of the concrete factors leading to the unrest: low pay, exploitive working conditions, lack of any social safety-net, and the fact that Uyghurs feel increasingly marginalized economically, as well as suffering linguistic and religious discrimination.

The English language Beijing Review also provides a good example of the regime’s new methods of spin and media manipulation. In “Crisis in Xinjiang” in its July 15 issue the journal blamed what was termed “organized violent crime” for the unrest. The article briefly mentions tensions between Han and Uyghurs. It says there was an incident in which a fight between Han and Uyghur workers broke out when Uyghur men were wrongfully accused of sexually assaulting two Han woman. After that, government authorities “received a tip” that calls for a mass demonstration were being made on the Internet. The article says this provided an excuse for organized separatist violence. An anonymous government official was quoted as saying, “It was a violent crime that was premeditated and organized. It was instigated and directed from abroad and carried out by outlaws in the country”.

The article appeared to be trying to gain credibility by tacitly admitting there was some tension between the Han and Uyghur peoples, but blamed the unrest primarily on outside influences. Other articles in that issue of Beijing Review focused on the cost and material damage of the unrest. Articles talked about the loss of a feeling of safety that Urumqi residents now felt. One article quoted Han and Uyghur residents calling for calm and greater unity between the groups.

Discussions of the Xinjiang unrest in the official media do not mention the decades of marginalization faced by the Uyghur people. An article on the website Beliefnet by Aziz Poonawalla discusses how the past decades have seen an enormous increase of the Han population of Xinjiang. In 1949 Xinjiang’s population was 94% Uyghur and other Muslim minorities. Today they account for about 60%. The capital Urumqi is now 75% Han. Han Chinese dominate all levels of society and government. There is rampant employment discrimination. Agriculture and much industry in Xinjiang is controlled by large enterprises called bingtuan. One in six Han in Xinjiang are employed in this sector, but Uyghur are rarely hired by the bingtuan. Development has led to an increase in rent, making housing almost unaffordable for many Uyghurs. There is also suppression of Uyghur cultural and religious traditions.

Eric Anderson writing in the Huffington Post said that the Bush Administration’s war on terror provided cover for the Chinese regime to stage a crackdown on the Uyghurs. He mentioned how since 9/11 the Chinese government developed a multi-tiered system of surveillance and cultural suppression against the Uyghurs.

Although the Chinese media is controlled, PRC citizens are increasingly aware of the massive state corruption and oppression. The government’s increasingly sophisticated media manipulation can be seen as a reaction against the increasing role of new communication technologies and its danger to the authoritarian system.