Xinhua official lays bare agency’s journalism as PR

Posted: June 6th, 2010 | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

The New York Times has a story up about China’s state-owned news agency Xinhua and its careful management of media. The story provides context for two important but disparate moments in China’s recent history: the launching of a man into space in 2003 and the violent riots that gripped Xinjiang in 2009.

It’s been well established that the Chinese government takes an extremely considered approach in cultivating its image. It manipulates outside perceptions through carefully choreographed news events. For instance, when Yang Liwei blasted off in the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft in 2003 on his way to becoming China’s first man in space, the government imposed a news blackout to ensure it controlled media coverage of the event. Nothing would be allowed to derail the government’s intended message of a monumental mission executed flawlessly, including a little blood:

In a lecture he gave to a group of journalism students last month, a top official at Xinhua, the state news agency, said that the mission was not so picture-perfect. The official, Xia Lin, described how a design flaw had exposed the astronaut to excessive G-force pressure during re-entry, splitting his lip and drenching his face in blood. Startled but undaunted by Mr. Yang’s appearance, the workers quickly mopped up the blood, strapped him back in his seat and shut the door. Then, with the cameras rolling, the cabin door swung open again, revealing an unblemished moment of triumph for all the world to see.

The same sort of choreography took place five years later when Zhai Zigang performed the country’s first spacewalk. “I’m feeling quite well,” he said as he clambered out of Shenzhou 7. He then waved a little Chinese flag around in a show of outer space patriotism. To be fair, every country with a space program uses it as a source of national pride and achievement, and China is no different.

The Xinhua official also discussed the riots that erupted in Ürümqi, capital of north-western province Xinjiang. When the riots took place in July 2009, very little information left Ürümqi. During the rioting and days after, the government locked down the city and its internet access has only recently been fully restored.

Mr. Xia’s journalism lecture, accompanied by a PowerPoint demonstration, included other examples of Xinhua’s handiwork, most notably coverage of ethnic rioting in the far west of China last summer that left nearly 200 people dead.

According to the transcript, Mr. Xia explained how Xinhua concealed the true horror of the unrest, during which the victims were mostly Han Chinese, for fear that it would set off violence beyond Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. Uighur rioters burned bus passengers alive, he told the class, and they raped women and decapitated children.

“Under those circumstances, it would have exacerbated ethnic conflicts if more photos were released,” he said.

That last point is particularly interesting because China’s international image was pummelled by media coverage during the riots. Given what I wrote above about the government’s obsession with its image at home and abroad, it could have easily released or leaked the photos as a propaganda tool. But it realised their publication would probably inflame anti-Ugyhr sentiments among Han Chinese in Ürümqi and worsen the rioting. Consequently Xinhua chose discretion to maintain the status quo. A University of California professor quoted by the Times sums up this choice the best:

“He’s basically telling these students that journalism in China is a big show, it’s fabricated, but in the end it’s all justified for the higher purpose of stability,” Mr. Xiao said.

David Cameron: we need nukes because of China

Posted: April 17th, 2010 | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

They steal our jobs, hack our computers and pollute the atmosphere. Now the Chinese are going to nuke us. That’s according to Conservative Party leader David Cameron who implied China could be a nuclear threat to the UK in the future.

Let me answer that directly because I think it’s important. I think the most important duty of any government, anyone who wants to be Prime Minister of this country, is to protect and defend our United Kingdom. And are we really happy to say that we’d give up our independent nuclear deterrent when we don’t know what is going to happen with Iran, we can’t be certain of the future in China, we don’t know exactly what our world will look like? I say we should always have the ultimate protection of our independent nuclear deterrent. That’s why we voted to make sure that happened.

One wonders whether Cameron relaxed before the debate by watching Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond flick about war brewing between the UK and China. This isn’t the first time Cameron has characterised China as a danger either – his debate remark was a repeat of what was said at a London brewery on April 12:

Iran? Sure. But China? Someone’s been reading Tom Clancy novels before bedtime. The UK’s relationship with China has admittedly been tense since the Copenhagen summit ended in ignominy last year but there is little to substantiate Cameron’s worry that China could threaten the UK in the future. Perhaps he believes that China will undergo a USSR-style disintegration, leading to the theft and trade of its nuclear arsenal. But if so, how will nuclear missiles on submarines act as a deterrent against bombs being smuggled into the country – surely the only way to use an illicitly acquired warhead? Whatever Cameron’s reasoning, opposition parties were quick to condemn his remark. British foreign secretary David Miliband tweeted afterwards:

For DC to lump China in same bracket as Iran re deterrent is an insult to fellow member of the UNSC. He shd withdraw.

He also felt sufficiently outraged by Cameron’s Yellow Peril fear to write a blog post:

For David Cameron to put China in the same bracket as Iran is completely irresponsible. China is our partner in tackling nuclear proliferation, and as their role at President Obama’s nuclear summit this week shows, in assuring nuclear security.

If this was a slip of the tongue then this is bad enough but David Cameron should apologise to China immediately.

Alistair Campbell, former government press secretary and now Gordon Brown’s debate coach, was a little less concerned about placating China:

William Hague will need to calm down the Chinese after Cameron put them into answer to a question about using nukes

@JamesDunningGeo Chinese don’t like Opposition parties so they were listening!

Best not to gloat too much Campbell – there are prominent Labour politicians who have cultivated relationships with the Chinese too.

But Cameron’s remark is odd in light of the 30-year history between the Conservative Party and China. It was during Margaret Thatcher’s government that the UK negotiated and formalised the agreement to hand Hong Kong back to the mainland in 1997. Consequently, Thatcher and by association the Tories are well-regarded in China. In fact, Thatcher was the only woman to appear in a newspaper poll of influential foreigners that helped shape China during 60 years of Communist Party rule.

South China Morning Post confuses jailed activist for China’s leader

Posted: April 14th, 2010 | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Bilingual readers of the South China Morning Post might have raised an eyebrow or two at its front page story yesterday. The English language newspaper splashed on the presence of China President Hu Jintao at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC, which begins tomorrow. Chinese officials confirmed their participation only a week before the event but securing their visit was seen as crucial by the US. Relations between the two countries have been cold in recent months so the visit was an opportunity for the White House to both re-engage the Chinese leadership and present a multilateral front against the Iranian nuclear programme. The story clearly merited its front page placement.

All well and good then – except the SCMP mistakenly referred to Hu Jintao as a well-known Chinese dissident. In this picture (click it for a zoom in), the Chinese characters next to Hu’s name on the first line are 胡佳. This is the Chinese name for Hu Jia, an award-winning pro-democracy activist currently serving a three-and-a-half jail sentence.

Hu Jia’s Wikipedia entry states:

Hu Jia is an activist and dissident in the People’s Republic of China. His work has focused on the Chinese democracy movement, Chinese environmentalist movement, and HIV/AIDS in the People’s Republic of China.

The paper took the unusual step of recalling that day’s copies and blacked out Hu Jia in copies sold in Beijing. It issued a terse front page correction the next day, saying:

“The South China Morning Post sincerely apologizes for the Chinese name translation error for President Hu Jintao in yesterday’s newspaper.”

A spokesperson later blamed foreign staff for the mistake, stating that copy was read by a proof-reader who did not understand Chinese.

Hong Kong and international media immediately highlighted the SCMP’s gaffe. But I doubt there will be any reaction from the mainland government. It is unlikely the mistake was intentional – unless the paper’s editorial staff were railing against their owner’s perceived pro-Beijing stance. And any comment about standards slipping might also be premature. After all, this is a paper won eight of 16 categories at the 2009 Society of Publishers in Asia Awards for local newspapers, including investigative journalism, newspaper design and best journalist.

Google’s withdrawal presents tricky balancing act for Hong Kong

Posted: March 26th, 2010 | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

Google’s decision to back out of China and no longer kowtow to the government has been rightly applauded around the world. But the company’s actions have brought into sharp relief the political balancing act that Hong Kong now faces. Google’s move now threatens to marginalise Hong Kong and accelerate its assimilation into China.

Hong Kong is something of an enigma to China. Reunited after Beijing regained sovereignty in 1997, the two possess cultures that at times can be as disparate as those between the East and West. Besides the language difference, Hong Kong is unlike any of China’s other major economic centres in that it possesses rule of law, strong press freedoms and an uncensored internet. It is the only place where politicians and people can openly discuss the events of Tiananmen in 1989 and Falun Gong, the repressed spiritual movement whose practitioners frequently demonstrate in Hong Kong’s tourist spots.

Values that once helped draw Western praise and investment are the cause of much hand wringing in Hong Kong. It is the city state’s respect for freedom of information that represents a direct challenge to authorities in Beijing. Google’s retreat has highlighted Hong Kong as a paradox, a place within China’s domain that lies beyond the government’s reach and control. But increasingly reliant on favourable policies from Beijing, the Hong Kong government must now convince the Chinese leadership it will not become a hub for subversion. Simultaneously, it must not cede the autonomy accorded to it in the ‘one country, two systems’ approach.

The two have clashed in the past. In 2003 the Hong Kong government tried to pass anti-subversion legislation that critics feared would outlaw free speech and criticism of the mainland. The laws were widely viewed as an attempt to appease Beijing but withdrawn after 500,000 protestors marched on Hong Kong island. Since then, China has regarded Hong Kong warily and stymied efforts for further political reform. Pro-democracy campaigners are fighting to bring forward Beijing’s timetable for universal suffrage. At present, Hong Kong’s seven million people will be able to directly elect their chief executive in 2017 and their lawmakers in 2020. But campaigners want to see elections take place in 2012 which caused ire on the mainland.

Government officials now speak openly of establishing Shanghai as China’s financial capital and Hong Kongers fear this will extinguish their home’s unique role as gateway into the country. BusinessWeek reported that when Hong Kong’s chief executive Donald Tsang visited Beijing earlier this month, he was told Shanghai had surpassed Hong Kong’s economic output for the first time in almost 30 years.

Almost exactly a year ago, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman made an ominous remark about his country’s attitude towards the internet. “Many people have a false impression that the Chinese government fears the internet,” Qin Gang said. “In fact it is just the opposite.” This ruthlessness could be wielded against Hong Kong if further insubordination is to come.