In the wake of Sunday’s deadly riots in Xinjiang, China’s central government took all the usual steps to enshrine its version of events as received wisdom: It crippled Internet service; blocked Twitter’s micro-blogs; purged search engines of unapproved references to the violence; saturated the Chinese media with the state-sanctioned story.
It also took one most unusual step: Hours after troops quelled the protests, the state invited foreign journalists on an official trip to Urumqi, “to know better about the riots”.
Journalists were on the trip witnessed protesters scuffling briefly with paramilitary police, who pushed them back with long sticks before both sides retreated.
The government has set up a media centre at a downtown hotel — with a hefty discount on rooms — to keep arriving reporters abreast of events. Journalists have access to Internet at the media centre.
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 learnt from the military crackdown in Tibet 17 months ago.
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.
“They’re getting more sophisticated. They learn from past mistakes,” said Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who closely follows the Chinese government’s efforts to manage the flow of information.
Chinese experts clearly have studied ways the Internet and mobile communication devices helped protesters organize and reach the outside world, and for ways that governments sought to counter them.
Cellphone videos posted during the Tibet unrest led the government to block YouTube then, a tactic repeated in advance of the Tiananmen Square anniversary last month.
China confirmed that it had cut off Internet access in parts of Urumqi. “We cut the Internet connection in some areas of Urumqi in order to quell the riot quickly and prevent violence from spreading to other places,” said Li Zhi, the top Communist Party official in Urumqi.
Li accused exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer of orchestrating the violence over the Internet. She denied the charge.