China tries openness in Xinjiang

Foreign media invited to cover aftermath of rioting

BEIJING -- When riots broke out in the restive west this week, China took a different tack with foreign journalists: instead of being barred, reporters were invited on an official tour of Xinjiang's capital.

The approach, a stark reversal from last year's handling of Tibetan unrest, suggests Chinese authorities have learned that providing access to information means they can get their own message out, experts said.

"They are getting more sophisticated in how they're handling foreign and domestic media coverage of a crisis. It used to be in a time of major crisis, you get a blackout...Now the approach is to get the government's viewpoint out there," said Rebecca MacKinnon, a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong, also a former CNN bureau chief in Beijing.

The State Council Information Office, the government's main public relations arm, extended their highly unusual invitation to the foreign media Monday, just one day after the worst ethnic violence in decades left 156 dead and 1,100 injured in the regional capital of Urumqi. Their goal? "To help foreign media to do more objective, fair and friendly reports," the agency said in a statement.

Journalists from 60 different foreign media organizations traveled to Urumqi Monday. They were taken to the largest hotel in town where the government had set up a media center. Special reporting passes were issued and press conferences were arranged.

The hotel was the only place in town where Internet service was not cut, which helped ensure that reporters stayed close.

Still, not everything stayed within the government's control. On Tuesday, as reporters were escorted around town to see the damage from Sunday's rioting, a group of some 200 Uighur women, wailing and shouting, appeared to protest the arrests of their husbands and sons in the ensuing crackdown.

For the government guides, who tried to herd reporters on buses as TV cameras rolled, it was a totally unscripted moment.

Despite the access, foreign journalists still reported problems in the field. The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said it had received reports of security forces detaining TV crews and other reporters, confiscating equipment, and even damaging a video camera. Two Associated Press Television producers were detained for more than three hours and questioned about their reporting. Their equipment was returned and eventually they were taken back to the media hotel.

Within China, the government has been working hard to control the information on this week's violence. State media remains under tight supervision while mobile phone service along with Internet access in Urumqi has been sharply curtailed. Meanwhile, China's Internet censors were scrubbing videos and text updates about the riots from China-based social networking sites such as Youku, a YouTube-like service, and Fanfou, a Chinese Web site similar to Twitter.

The riots exposed the long-simmering tensions between the minority Uighurs and majority Han Chinese and echoed last year's unrest in the Tibetan capital Lhasa. The rioters, mostly Uighurs, rampaged through the streets, overturning barricades, attacking vehicles and buildings, and clashing with police. State television aired footage showing protesters attacking and kicking people on the ground. Victims who appeared to be Han Chinese sat dazed with blood pouring down their faces.

"If they try to suppress coverage, then the foreign media writes its own stories...whereas here, they can encourage foreign media to understand their view better," said David Zweig, director of the Center on China's Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"By taking people to see it, they can make the case that there was violence by Uighurs. Otherwise, people won't write that story," he said.

During the protests in Lhasa and other Tibetan communities last spring, the government maintained a virtual news blackout. A strict travel ban, which has always been in place, meant foreign reporters could not board planes and trains to get into Lhasa, but limited information seeped out through foreign travelers and Tibetan exile communities abroad.

For China, the picture that emerged from Tibet was a highly negative and often more simplistic version of a complicated history, said MacKinnon.

"I don't know what sparked their change of approach this time but I think one of the results of not allowing Beijing-based press corps into Tibet last year was that the story ended up being covered [from] outside of China. It resulted in the exile community being able to frame the story," she said.

China's leaders may also be borrowing from how Western countries handle media during a crisis, she said. "I think generally, the media strategy in the Internet age is that you're better off allowing media access and trying to spin the situation in your favor."

Ultimately, new technology and Internet access may have left China with little choice but to cultivate a new way of dealing with the media.

"A degree of openness is something that cannot be avoided any more, given the development of mass media," said Barry Sautman, a political scientist in Hong Kong. "Not only is it productive politically, but it's also something China has to get used to."
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