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In Latest Upheaval, China Applies New Strategies to Control Flow of Information

July 8, 2009

www.nytimes.com - July 7, 2009

BEIJING - In the wake of Sunday's deadly riots in its western region of
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,
in which 156 people were reported killed, the state invited foreign
journalists on an official trip to Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital and the site
of the unrest, "to know better about the riots." Indeed, it set up a media
center at a downtown hotel - with a hefty discount on rooms - to keep
arriving reporters abreast of events.

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
learned from the military crackdown in Tibet 17 months ago. Foreign
reporters were banned from Tibet, then and now. Chinese authorities rallied
domestic support by blaming outside agitators but were widely condemned
overseas.

As the Internet and other media raise new challenges to China's version of
the truth, China is finding new ways not just to suppress bad news at the
source, but also 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 the so-called color revolutions - in
Georgia and Ukraine, and last month's protests in Iran - for the ways that
the Internet and mobile communication devices helped protesters organize and
reach the outside world, and for ways that governments sought to counter
them.

In Tibet, Chinese rallied behind the government's assertion that violence
there was an effort by the exiled Dalai Lama to break the nation apart. But
China's global image took a drubbing after Tibetan dissidents beamed images
of violence to the outside world from cellphone cameras, and officials
barred virtually all foreigners from entering the supposedly peaceful
region.

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. YouTube remained blocked this week. Officials are
systematically tearing down satellite dishes across the region, eliminating
uncensored foreign television and radio broadcasts.

In Urumqi this week, the official response to one of the most violent riots
in decades has taken two divergent paths. Internally, censors tightly
controlled media coverage of the unrest and sought to disable the social
networks that opponents might use to organize more demonstrations. Cellphone
calls to Urumqi and nearby areas have largely been blocked. Twitter was shut
down nationwide at midday Monday; a Chinese equivalent, Fanfou, was running,
but Urumqi-related searches were blocked.

Chinese search engines no longer give replies for searches related to the
violence. Results of a Google search on Monday for "Xinjiang rioting" turned
up many links that had already been deleted on such well-trafficked Chinese
Internet forums as Mop and Tianya.

State television has focused primarily, though not totally, on scenes of
violence directed against China's ethnic Han majority. Chinese news Web
sites carry official accounts of the unrest, but readers are generally
blocked from posting comments.

As in Tibet, blame for the violence has been aimed at outside agitators bent
on splitting China - in this case, the World Uighur Congress, an exile group
whose president, Rebiya Kadeer, is a Uighur businesswoman now living in
Washington.

State news agency reports assert that Chinese authorities have intercepted
telephone conversations linking Ms. Kadeer to the protests. The exile group
has condemned the violence and denies any role in fomenting it.

On the surface, at least, the government's approach to the outside world has
been markedly different. By Monday morning, the State Council Information
Office, the top-level government public-relations agency, had invited
foreign journalists to Urumqi to report firsthand on the riots.

Scores of arriving journalists were escorted by bus to a downtown hotel,
where they were offered a two-page summary that blamed Uighur separatists
led by Ms. Kadeer for starting the riots. Officials gave photographers
compact discs filled with bloody images, videos and television "screen
grabs" from the riot.

The government-prepared package recalled a similar set of images,
distributed widely during the 2008 disturbances in Tibet, that stoked
widespread anger among ordinary Chinese against the Tibetan protesters.

Journalists were invited Tuesday morning on a government-escorted tour of
one of the Uighur neighborhoods hit hardest by the violence. But they were
explicitly barred from conducting any interviews without government minders
present, and television journalists who sought to wander on their own were
reported to have been stopped by police or paramilitary officers who
demanded that they turn over their film.

Western governments and major organizations regularly woo the press with
similar setups - although without the tight restrictions - and the Urumqi
junket clearly lifted a page from the news management strategies of a
variety of experts, including the White House and the National Rifle
Association.

On Tuesday, the Chinese got an unpleasant taste of the strategy's limits,
when Uighur protesters invaded a press tour of one burned-out neighborhood
to demand the release of friends and family members seized by police.

Even so, Mr. Xiao of Berkeley said, the Chinese appear to have decided that
it is better to give the world a supervised peek at the nation's problems -
Uighur gate-crashing included - than to remain silent and let Beijing's
critics set the news agenda.

The government "has revealed what they learned from handling the Tibet
situation," he said. "For Twitter or the Internet, when they see too many
factors they cannot completely control, they shut down and block. But for
foreign journalists, they feel that as long as they can keep those people
under control, it may serve better the government's purpose."

Edward Wong contributed from Urumqi, China, and Jonathan Ansfield from
Beijing.
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