China extends hand to foreign media, but tightens grip elsewhere | world | Hindustan Times
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China extends hand to foreign media, but tightens grip elsewhere

world Updated: Jul 09, 2009 12:48 IST

Foreign journalists have been given unprecedented access in the aftermath of deadly unrest in Urumqi, in what China has hailed as a new era of openness to the outside world.

At the same time, however, the government has choked the information flow within China, shutting down the Internet in Urumqi, cutting phone lines and blocking Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other independent websites.

"They're trying to seize the initiative and guide the coverage instead of just reacting passively as they did last year to the riots in Tibet," said Willy Lam, a Chinese politics expert at US think tank the Jamestown Foundation.

Beijing's new tactics are not only a response to the anti-China riots in Tibet last year, which gave China a public relations black eye before the Olympics, but also the protests in Iran after last month's election, Lam said.

"They have been watching the Iranian situation with a lot of nervousness, particularly this so-called Twitter revolution," Lam told AFP.

"Globally, Beijing's image to a certain extent has improved because of this. There has been less criticism of Beijing and total censorship this time compared to last year."

Unlike in Tibet and for other sensitive news stories in China, foreign reporters have been allowed into restive Xinjiang region, of which Urumqi is the capital, and given freedom to interview people on both sides of the unrest.

But their access has not been unfettered. Some journalists have been detained for a short time and police have occasionally stopped others from conducting interviews.

Other difficulties have been caused by curbs on the Internet, international phone calls and mobile phone lines that the government has said are aimed at cutting Xinjiang residents off from the outside world.

Those measures appeared to be a bow to the power of Twitter, Facebook and other Internet forums.

Lam said it remained to be seen how long the access for foreign reporters would last.

"They are just testing the reaction - if the end results turns out to be very negative, they will put the brakes on again," Lam said.

During last year's deadly earthquake in southwest China, access for foreign press was initially lauded as unprecedentedly open but was quickly curbed as the focus shifted from humanitarian efforts to corruption and protests.

The openness after the riots may also indicate Beijing is realising it has become increasingly hard to keep information hidden, said David Zweig, a China expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"They know they didn't do very well in Tibet ... rather than journalists not have access and get stories from Uighurs overseas, this way they go in and see for themselves," he said.

Photos of foreign journalists working in Urumqi have appeared in Chinese newspapers alongside daily updates on how many journalists are in the city.

Despite the state-run media's attention paid to the presence of foreign reporters, their own reports bear little resemblance to those produced by foreign media and they continue to strictly follow the government agenda.

Images in the Chinese media have typically shown bloody Han Chinese injured in the violence along with torched buses and other damaged property.

The state media's focus on Han Chinese victims while not telling the Uighurs' story risks causing longer term damage, William Moss, a Beijing-based PR executive and media commentator, wrote on his blog Imagethief.com.

"It inflames the very tensions it attempts to paper over. And, with marvellous efficiency, it inflames them on both sides," Moss wrote.

"Uighurs are given the impression that their concerns are considered unworthy of acknowledgement by the State ... Other Chinese, meanwhile, are deprived of any context for the riots."