Page last updated at 16:25 GMT, Wednesday, 8 July 2009 17:25 UK

China seeks control through openness

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Beijing

Protests in Xijiang
China has unusually allowed foreign media to report the clashes in Xinjiang

"Let the facts speak for themselves," was the unusual statement of intent from Xinjiang regional government official Li Wanhui after Sunday's violence in Urumqi that officials say left 156 people dead.

It was unusual because China is a country where the authorities like to exert tight control over what its people read, watch or listen to.

Yet here was a local official suggesting they would help journalists to cover one of the most serious incidents of ethnic unrest in the country's history.

Last year, when there were riots in Tibet, the whole region was sealed off. Foreign journalists were prevented from going there.

For two days the Chinese released no pictures of what had gone on there.

Different tactic

It is clear China learnt lessons from its suppression of the violence in Tibet and the perception it created that it had something to hide by trying to restrict the information that came out.

This time we have seen a different tactic - a clever and effective effort to shape the story to fit its own agenda, using the kind of techniques familiar to any major PR firm anywhere in the world.

They wanted the rest of the world to understand that this was a clash between two ethnic groups, rather than a separatist movement
Zhou Bing
Political Commentator, Hong Kong

China's leaders realised months ago that this was the approach they needed to take when dealing with potential problems.

They have studied hard the mistakes they and others have made in the past, and they are determined they will not repeat them.

This time within hours they welcomed journalists from more than 60 foreign media organisations to Xinjiang to cover the aftermath of Sunday's violence.

Foreign journalists arriving in Urumqi were offered official trips to the hospital and to some of the parts of the city worst affected by the violence accompanied by official minders, but other than that they were free to move around the city as they wished.

Greater access

Zhou Bing, a political commentator in Hong Kong, said this represents a loosening of the controls the foreign media might have expected in such circumstances.

He believes that the authorities in Beijing had a clear message they wanted to get out.

"They wanted the rest of the world to understand that this was a clash between two ethnic groups, rather than a separatist movement, to frame it as people fighting over local issues, not independence," he said.

Chinese soldiers travel through the Tibetan capital Lhasa on 15 March, 2008
China kept the media away from the 2008 Tibet protests

He said they decided that by allowing the foreign journalists into the hospitals to see the victims, or to talk to Han Chinese and Uighurs on the streets, the foreigners would start to share that view.

Even though the government in Beijing has accused Uighurs in exile of inciting the violence, Zhou Bing said this was different from the Tibet issue and so it made sense to give journalists greater access to try to ensure they understood that.

For Chinese journalists reporting for the domestic media, there was less freedom. Their reports were censored, as they always are by the central authorities.

Attempts to calm

The story was covered in the Chinese press with, initially at least, much of the focus on the Han Chinese who had been targeted by rioters.

This continued until the Han took to the streets on Tuesday in Urumqi and confronted security forces, demanding protection and in some cases vengeance.

By Wednesday morning the official media seemed to have been directed to focus more on attempts to calm the situation.

An editorial in the China Daily warned: "If a wrong is avenged with another wrong, there would be no end to it."

Articles in the paper included interviews with workers at the factory in southern China, the scene of a deadly clash between Uighur and Han Chinese workers last month, which was said to have been one of the sparks for Sunday's protest.

The paper said the workers had not expected their dispute to trigger such bloodshed in Xinjiang.

The fight at the factory had begun over a false allegation, posted on a website, that six Xinjiang boys had raped two girls at the factory.

Police in Guangdong province, scene of the clash, said a disgruntled former worker at the factory had been detained for making the claim.

One other notable response from the authorities to Sunday's clashes, was their efforts to shut down the internet in Xinjiang and to prevent a free exchange of information on the web throughout China about that violence.

Officials here would no doubt try to argue there is a danger that in a situation where tensions are running high, unsubstantiated rumours gain greater currency and greater circulation when they are repeated on websites like Twitter or Facebook.

So while they tolerate the demands of the "traditional" overseas media, and go a long way towards facilitating their coverage of the story, they have clamped down on "new media" sources on the internet - either by blocking access to sites completely, or by removing comments or posts referring to Xinjiang.

They fear unrest within their own borders far more than they do public opinion in other countries.

China wanted to ensure that, within its own borders, its coverage did not inflame ethnic tensions any further, so the restrictions on all but the official coverage were rigorously enforced.

Difficult anniversaries

But China's netizens are smart. Some got around the restrictions by posting comments on older threads about Xinjiang rather than trying to create new ones, and so some "unofficial" information did get out.

Twitter was blocked in China, and despite the fact that the internet was blocked all over Xinjiang, many correspondents there and others, both foreigners and Chinese, posted updates on the scenes unfolding in front of them minute by minute on the site, by passing them on to colleagues elsewhere who then tweeted them.

This year there are a lot of potentially difficult anniversaries for the government to deal with - 20 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre, 60 years since the founding of the People's Republic of China to name just two, and so since the start of 2009 control over the internet has begun to be tightened.

"The Chinese government has learnt a lot from incidents that have occurred recently in the cyber universe, both at home and abroad," said Zhou Bing.

"Even before this, there were incidents about corruption and scandal here which were publicised by people using the internet so the tools to suppress them were already there.

"They had the technical means to take down photos, or videos, or comments they didn't like and they were removed swiftly."

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