Tuesday, July 7, 2009

China: The revolution will be spun

Good piece in the NYT today about China's efforts to block & spin events in East Turkestan/Xinjiang, which is all the better because it quotes my dear friend Xiao over at China Digital Times.  He is so brilliant.  Key passages from the article: 
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.

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.

The most troubling aspects of this whole approach are the regime's attempts to play ethnic politics and their ability to manipulate foreign media.  On the first, it is extremely frightening to think that a nation of 1.3 billion people, 90+% of whom are of the Han (Chinese) ethnicity can be so easily manipulated by their authoritarian government into hating their "brothers and sisters" - be they Uighur or Tibetan.  Think about it: We're talking about a regime that is willing to pit more than 1 billion its own people against small ethnic minority groups that were already suffering from heavy discrimination and who lag behind the rest of China on virtually every social and economic indicator - hardly smacks of confidence in their own legitimacy.  

Which leads to the kind of stories they are able to get out of "western" media from the calculated junket to Urumqi.  On the face of it, inviting a bunch of foreign journalists to Urumqi the day after massive riots flies in the face of the Chinese media control mind-set, and gives the an impression of increased openness that will earn them credit from the west.  However, I would bet my last grain of rice that in addition to the New York Times, there was a sizable contingent of "journalists" from countries such as Nepal, Russia, Pakistan, etc. - where the press is nominally free but journalistic standards are, shall we say, more creative.  Setting aside the ongoing decline of journalism in the western world, my experience with the reportage of the Nepali press corps leads me to believe that the Chinese will get exactly what they want out of this junket:  a suitable number of news stories in English and other languages, from a range of sources that are not the Chinese state, but exactly parrot the coverage one would find in Xinhua.  The online media market is increasingly a numbers game, and they have probably rightly calculated that they can achieve parity or maybe even supremacy in the post-protest spin zone by just increasing the amount of "positive" reportage by "independent" sources.

This is sophisticated stuff worthy of Madison Avenue or the Obama White House.  Coming as it does from a large, increasingly powerful authoritarian regime, it should be horrifying.  Policy-makers and the media themselves need to recognize that this media management strategy is a key factor in the ability of what should be very brittle regime to continue to survive and thrive. 

The question then becomes, what lesson should the free world take from all this and what policy response is appropriate.  First, we need to recognize China's censorship at home and spin control abroad as the strategic threat that it is.  Fighting back against it should be a strategic imperative, rather than the current ad hoc after-thought approach.  Together with other free societies, the U.S. needs to be pushing back on Chinese censorship with more information resources.  This means increased funding for surrogate radio such as Radio Free Asia, and efforts to improve access for services such as the Voice of America and the BBC.  We also need to invest in internet freedom initiatives that can challenge China's control of online space and discourse.  We need to both increase access to the "free" web for Chinese and expand the number and presence of alternate points of view in the Chinese vernacular.  These are all essential and, currently, all are very poorly funded.  

Western media and technology companies also need to recognize their responsibility as beneficiaries of the free press and free market at home in their conduct in China.  Fear of losing market share should not be allowed as an excuse for behavior that limits the freedoms of the Chinese people.  It is inexcusable that Microsoft, Google, Cisco and other technology companies are complicit in China's domestic censorship regime.  The U.S. Department of Justice and its European counterpart should be investigating Microsoft over the issue of whether its new Bing! search engine filters out results for Chinese language searches outside China, as has been reported.  The recent firestorm over the "Green Dam" filtering software, and the regime's about-face on that issue shows that it can be pressured effectively on censorship issues.  The key lesson from that episode is that unity and public outrage are effective tools in calling the Chinese government's bluff.  

The U.S. and other countries should also look at the possibility of challenging China's censorship of western media outlets through the WTO on the grounds of unequal treatment.  China's state-run CCTV television channel and other Chinese state-owned media outlets are given free and open access to western media markets while western media are blocked, censored and harassed in China.  The increasing privatization of Chinese media has created new opportunities to use market-based and legal tools to go after both the censorship regime and the disparate access.  

The Department of Defense should also be engaged, given the potential for China to apply the lessons learned from its cyber-war against its own citizens to cyber-warfare against the US and other countries whose war-fighting capabilities are heavily dependent on preserving an effective information-management system.  And, as John Dillinger said, people rob banks because that is where the money is.  DOD has the money and the rationale for working with other parts of the US government on this.  
I'm kind of on a roll here; I think I am going to take this and work it into a piece for MSM publication.  We'll see how that goes today!
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