The screenshot above comes from the Anti-cnn.com website as it appeared on Saturday. The item is titled "Rebiya Fakes It! Using a fake photo to twist the truth in the Urumqi incident"
Click on the image to view an image of the full web page. I happen to have saved the page (a research habit I've developed) before Anti-CNN.com went completely offline, sometime on Sunday. For the time being at least there is a Google's cache of the front page from July 9.
Roland Soong at ESWN has a full account of how the photo came to be misconstrued and misused (scroll down to find the relavant material in his long compilation of news about the Xinjiang riots).
Apparently, the source of the error was Reuters, who had sourced the photo from Twitter and put it out on the wire before recalling it. Roland somehow got ahold of Reuters' recall notice (click to enlarge):
The unfortunate - but it appears genuinely honest - mistake by Rebiya Kadeer sparked a fury of comments on anti-cnn, many of which denounced the Western media for emphasizing Uighur casualties while making light of Han Chinese casualties. Some comments on that page and on other threads on the anti-cnn (which unfortunately I did not save) described the July 5th race riot as an act of terrorism, accused the Uighurs of being terrorists, and accused Western governments and the Western media of supporting anti-Chinese terrorism.
Such views were egged on by commentaries in the Chinese state-controlled media, some of which even appeared in English. One, which by Sunday had been removed (but which can still be found in the Google cache) began this way:
By whatever calculations, the blood-thirsty maiming and slaughtering of civilians, as young as six years old, in Urumqi, northwestern China's Xinjiang on July 5, is heinous homicide, barbarity against humanity, and terrorist act on China.
A look into the aftermath of the bloodbath found it bore the hallmark of secret and well choreography aiming at innocent human lives, identical to Al Qaeda's killing of thousands of office workers at the World Trade Center twin towers on September 11, 2001. The terrorists this time did not use flying petrol bombs to detonate tall buildings, they brandished steel rods and wielded knives to end lives.
The barbarity has astonished China and the world. Thanks to the authorities' revised policy of free on-spot reportage, in sharp contrast to previous media controls, more people on the globe have got to know the senseless killing. Some said that even during New Stone ages, our ancestors, though barely dressed, did not do this to each other while chasing nuts and edibles in the woods.
..and so on.
This kind of language has raged all over the Chinese Internet between July 5 and Saturday or so.
With Xinjiang we've seen substantial evolution of the Chinese government's media strategy in times of unrest, aimed to make the best of a bad situation. The government has come to recognize that media blackouts don't work in the Internet age. Assuming your goal is to maintain the central government's power and the Communist Party's overall legitimacy (rather than total social control which they gave up on a long time ago) when localized unrest flares up it is more effective a multi-pronged strategy, as follows:
- Cut off the Internet and mobile messaging in the immediate area where the violence took place.
- Censor blogs, chatrooms, search engines and social networking sites heavily to prevent people from spreading unofficial information or using social networks to organize. Increase blocks on overseas sites. Shut some domestic ones down if needed.
- Get Xinhua, the People's Daily, CCTV and other officially sanctioned news outlets on the scene as soon as possible. Fill the airwaves, news pages, and domestic websites with the government-approved version of what happened. (This new approach first emerged as a riot-information-management strategy with last year's Weng'an riots.)
- Grant access to foreign media - the lesson of last year's Tibet unrest is that if you keep them out they're not going to believe a thing you say. This time, foreign reporters have directly reported about Han victims of Uighur violence as well as Uighur victims of Han violence. Which is probably one reason why the foreign media has not directly challenged the government's official death toll reflecting many more Han dead than Uighur dead, though they've quoted the Uighur exile groups who say the Uighur toll is actually much higher. Coverage instead emphasizes how hard it is to figure out what's going on, which is a much better storyline for the Chinese government than "they won't let us in, what are they hiding?"
- Be helpful: facilitate the foreign media coverage with press conferences, a dedicated news center, and a discounted hotel in the area you want them to stay in. Allow the police to kick them out of places you'd rather they didn't go to, act coy when reporters complain.
- Wait for the inevitable mistakes to be made in the Western media - mis-captioned photo here, mistakenly used video there, a grossly oversimplified turn of phrase comparing a race riot to the 1989 democracy movement, plus some downright factual errors here and there. Let the nationalistic blogosphere and Chinese media outlets like Global Times rip into these things as proof of the West's anti-China bias and deliberate obfuscation of the truth.
- Take advantage of the failure by Western commentators, exiled activists, and human rights groups to consider how their statements and actions may sound and look to ordinary Chinese people, even those who are open to critiques of their government. Last year we saw a pro-Tibet protestor accosting a wheelchair-bound Chinese athlete. In the Xinjiang case, many Western commentators and human rights groups have condemned methods used in the crackdown, expressed legitimate concerns about an impending witchunt against Uighurs, and rightly critiqued the Chinese government's bad policies that led to the ethnic tensions, but then in many cases failed to deplore the killing of innocent Han. This has given many Chinese the impression that the West condones Uighur violence as excusable because they're an oppressed minority. For example, this statement by Human Rights Watch is unlikely to play well with Chinese audiences because it expresses no concern for the loss of innocent Han lives and stops short of condemning all killers regardless of ethnic background. The Chinese government can afford to dismiss it without domestic political cost.
The result is that while they've got much unpleasantness to deal with, their legitimacy in the minds of the majority of Chinese is sufficiently maintained. While many people may have a lot of serious issues with their government, enough people end up concluding that the foreigners and the exiles may not have the Chinese peoples' interests at heart either - so might as well stick with the current crop of bums and work things out with them gradually.
This weekend, however, the censors seem to have decided that the patriotism may have gone too far. Hence the deletion of certain articles, the shutting down of Xinjiang-related discussions in nationalist-leaning fora like the Global Times, and the outage of anti-cnn.com.
One reason for dialing things back may be the reactions coming from the Islamic world. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has condemned China's crackdown in Xinjiang as genocide. Global Voices' Iran editor dug up this Persian-language blog comparing the Chinese in Xinjiang to the Israelis in Palestine. I get the impression that there is a lot more of that kind of sentiment out there. China has spent the last few decades cultivating strong relationships with the Islamic world, including Iran. China badly needs their oil, among other things. Chinese companies, engineering crews, and construction workers are all over the Middle East and Africa. Suppress the Tibetans however you like and your external economic relationships won't suffer that much. Treat China's restive Muslim minority in an insensitive, ham-fisted manner, and there could be all kinds of hell to pay. Time to start figuring out how to govern a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country in a sustainable, enlightened way.
What's also interesting, I find, is that this year in the wake of the Xinjiang riots I've been seeing a lot of discussion and critique on Chinese-language websites about the Chinese government's ethnic policies. Somebody please correct me if I'm wrong but there seems to be a more detailed and nuanced policy discussion going on this year than in the wake of last year's Tibet unrest. A number of postings by Han Chinese people who've lived in Xinjiang, and who think that the government's minority policies have been a failure, have been translated by China Digital Times, Global Voices, Fools Mountain, and ESWN among others. I've come across several Chinese blog posts and articles analyzing the policies on ethnicity and race practiced in Europe and North America. There seems to be a pretty strong consensus among nationalists as well as liberals that - whatever the solution may be - the status quo policies are not working. Combine this with pressure from the Islamic world to do a better job, will things change?
The problem, however, is this: does the Chinese government have the ability to conduct credible policy reform? If good policy happened to be formulated, does the center have enough control over the localities to actually implement it effectively?
If the answer to those two questions continues to be "no," the Chinese government's new and improved information management strategies may help them keep the country together in the short and maybe even medium term, but in the long run even the cleverest and most thorough strategy of censorship and information management will be hard pressed to prop up failed policy and bad governance.