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 the 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.
The State Council Information Office, the government’s main public relations arm, extended a highly unusual invitation to the foreign media on Monday, just one day after the worst ethnic violence in decades left 156 dead and 1,100 injured in the regional capital of Urumqi. The goal?
“To help foreign media to do more objective, fair and friendly reports,” Xinhua said in a statement.
Journalists from 60 different foreign media organizations traveled to Urumqi on 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.
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 about 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 TV 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.
During the protests in Lhasa and other Tibetan communities last spring, the government maintained a virtual news blackout.
For China, the picture that emerged from Tibet was a highly negative and often more simplistic version of a complicated history, MacKinnon said.
“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 outside of China. It resulted in the exile community being able to frame the story,” she said.