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.

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