The Urumqi Riots and Media Strategy

Violent events in China tend to spark controversy. When details are vague — and they almost always are, at least at first — it’s up to individual news teams to make decisions about how their coverage is going to portray the events. The recent riots in Urumqi are no exception; thus far a couple of things stand out.

Western Media Response, or, Why China Hates CNN

All praise due to frequent ChinaGeeks commenter wooddoo for noticing the rather conspicuous absence of the word “riot” in CNN’s early coverage of the events. Unfortunately, they’ve since updated the story and Google cache seems to have disappeared; however, even their current story is pretty hesitant, calling the upheaval “protests”, the rioters “protesters” and mentioning a “police lockdown” several paragraphs before mentioning that the “protesters” “attacked passersby, burned public buses and blocked traffic” (although, of course, they’re quick to mention that that report comes from state-run media).

In contrast, the New York Times story (and most of the other stories in the Western media we’ve seen) calls the unrest a riot rather directly. So does the Washington Post.

It’s getting increasingly difficult to defend CNN when it comes to their coverage of China. Last year, their coverage of the Lhasa riots was so terrible it actually started a movement in China that has given birth to an entire internet community. Based on this most recently updated story, they’re headed in the right direction, but the tone is still off, and if we can ever find a cached version of their earliest stories, the bias would be even more obvious.

Chinese Media Focused on the West?

Also of interest (as noted in the third update of our post about the riots), Xinhua (China’s official state media service) has been a bit strange. If their website is to be trusted, they are updating their English language story about the riots much more quickly than they are updating the Chinese one, which still reads 140 deaths (as of this posting, the official total as reported by a myriad of other sources including Xinhua’s English wire is 156).

Perhaps the services are just run separately and the English language staff are more competent (this seems unlikely). Barring that, this could indicate a couple things.

First, it may indicate that the Chinese government is seeking primarily to control the international response to this story, and thus, Xinhua has been focusing on the English report, which is clearly where most of the Western news sources are currently getting their information. If this is the case, it would indicate a bit of a paradigm shift in their media response, which has previously been aimed primarily at domestic audiences.

However, these riots may be a special case. Given the ethnic issues evident in July 5th’s events, especially the apparent violence against innocent Han bystanders, the government may feel that the domestic audience is already well enough on the government’s side, and thus guiding public perception of the events through the media isn’t a huge priority, whereas the international media — some of whom are, as previously discussed, prone to “misunderstandings” and “accidental” photo cropping — presents a bigger challenge. Is this a sign that China is more concerned with its international standing?

The other reason for the discrepancy could be that they’re trying to slow the flow of new information coming into the domestic news market for fear the issue could explode on the internet.

Anyway, it’s all speculation at this point, so dive right in? What, exactly, do you think is going on here, if anything?

0 thoughts on “The Urumqi Riots and Media Strategy”

  1. Custer,

    West media is truely master of manipulation.

    Read the NYT report, everything is about censorship, human right and suppression of chinese government Except the first sentence of the 2nd paragraph, the whole article is like explaining why Uighurs rioted and how they had no other choices, and 1/3 of the article is about censorship.

    Truely a masterpiece of manipulation.


  2. Wahaha, your link is to Time Magazine, not the New York Times (NYT). Two different organizations, and Time is basically CNN on paper. Which is not to say that the NYT is perfect or anything, but best to bash the people you think you’re bashing.


  3. I woke up this morning and read the London Times on my phone. The article I saw was a fairly good one, with interviews with witnesses and survivors detailing the horrendous killings.

    And that should be how you report an event, by being there and talking to people instead of ONLY focusing on what’s happening on the Internet and whatnot, especially because, as I’ve said this twice, the western reporters haven’t been banned from the region yet and they are free to interview witnesses and Uyghurs.

    Today the tone has changed in the western media. Yesterday it was mostly about the riots and today it’s about justification of the riots.

    And I’m still waiting for the bleeding-heart EU and US to make statements sympathetic for the dead, Han, Hui and Uyghur. But I guess there won’t be any.


  4. “…everything is about censorship, human right and suppression of chinese government… ”

    And how is that being manipulative? You don’t think that Uighurs suffer human rights violations? And that hasn’t contributed to the unrest? And you don’t think the Chinese government’s silent policy of marginalising Uighur culture via Han immigration is relevant in any way?

    So, who is being manipulative?


  5. “And I’m still waiting for the bleeding-heart EU and US to make statements sympathetic for the dead, Han, Hui and Uyghur. But I guess there won’t be any.”

    That chip on your shoulder is growing bigger. It makes you look very small.


  6. Okay enough with the trolls.

    Update on the events: My friend called again just now. He couldn’t send out texts, but he was able to make phone calls. He gave me his hotel landline number just in case I wouldn’t be able to call him on his cell.

    And he said thousands of Han protesters took to the streets today in retaliation and the situation was dangerously getting out of control. The commies were convening to discuss how to deal with it.

    A woman who’s a friend of the family is also in Urumqi right now (I just remembered), I’m gon try to call her and see if she’s okay.


  7. Apparently now you cannot send texts into Xinjiang either.

    So I called my friend, and he took a ten-day leave and is now staying in his hotel afraid to go out. Ordinary folks, Han and Hui, in his place (not Urumqi) are beginning to arm themselves, not with guns which are hard to find in China, but with everything from knives to pipes.

    That reminds me of what happened this spring during the military clampdown in Tibet where, according to an NYT article, ordinary Han and Muslim folks armed themselves with guns (I wonder where they found those?).

    I’m going to start bombing my friend’s Beijing office with calls to demand he be sent back.


  8. Thanks OTR,

    I just had a talk with one of my college classmates who’s been a journalist for Xinhua. The staff there too are complaining that the government should be more open.


  9. Indeed, thanks @ wooddoo!

    @ Stuart: What are you talking about? I fail to see how wooddoo is “inciting Han revenge”, nor is he the CCP apologist you seem to be mistaking him for. Anyway, let’s stick with the facts and avoid personal attacks here — this is directed at both of you — before I have to start disemvoweling comments. Play nice.


  10. Chinese xenophobe Woodoo said “And I’m still waiting for the bleeding-heart EU and US to make statements sympathetic for the dead, Han, Hui and Uyghur. But I guess there won’t be any.”

    Thought I saw a clip with a White House spokesperson expressing concern for the loss of life. Maybe I imagined it?


  11. Okay I’ll play nice.

    Two other disturbing things I have observed:
    1) Many Chinese don’t know the difference between Hui and Uyghur… I spent 10 minutes explaining that to a friend today who’s a freelancer translator.
    2) Many Chinese start blaming Islam. But I fail to see how religion played a part in this, which is why it cracked me up when a commenter at the said something like it’s all about Allah.


  12. God the flies. I wish I were Obama. Anyway I said I’d play nice. I’m gon go watch So You Think You Can Dance. I love the ballerina and that Cuban girl.


  13. sh*t I’m kinda torn…follow the Uighur story or watch the Jackson memorial….decisions decisions decisions. that is satire before you jump all over me, sadly though the Jackson memorial will dominate all Western media

    RIP to all the victims (Han, Uighur or whatever) and a pox on all the perpetrators (Han, Uighur or whatever)


  14. I remember reading a while back on James Fallows’s blog that there’s an important shift to be taken note of with regard to the way we obtain new information. He argued that things like newspapers and magazines are archaic and slowly dying devices (which is odd, since he’s a journalist who works for a magazine), being replaced by blogs and forums, etc. I have to say that I can’t agree more and because of the clear bias on both sides of the media, most of the news I get on China these days comes from this site, Chinasmack, and ESWN. At this point, I’d venture to say that it won’t be too much longer before we’ve evolved past these defunct sources of information.

    Also, thanks, wooddoo, for providing this excellent, personalized information. Hopefully the violence will end soon.


  15. @ Think Ming: direct personal attacks on someone right after I reminded everyone to play nice? F. Refrain from doing that again or I really will dust off the disemvoweling sword.


  16. I’m copying this reply I just posted to the previous thread because it’s equally relevant here.

    “But, if we debate the media forever or the interests of nations, then we lose track of the heart of the matter, which is basic fairness for human beings.”
    Old Tales Retold, 08 Jul 2009 at 3:15 am


    There are a host of personal jibes and misperceptions about where I stand and what I’ve said in the comments above, so I’ll reply to one that makes sense.

    Many innocent people have died. For all we know they are still dying. Hundreds, possibly thousands have been jailed and we can only imagine the brutal conditions that await some of them. An already fractured community, simmering with mutual distrust, has boiled over into terrible violence. Those scars are going to take longer to heal than anyone here will live to see.

    The challenge is to facilitate that healing process while avoiding a repetition of the same kind of unrest. How can this be achieved? Not very easily, I would suggest, largely because any solution tendered will be offered by the only power broker in the game – and Uighurs don’t trust the CCP. It would be far better for some respected community leaders on both sides to be encouraged to get together and start to demonstrate those qualities that my former students insisted were common to all Chinese people: peace, harmony, and tolerance. But that’s a hard sell in China, because you need an arbiter trusted by both sides.

    The alternative is to continue marginalising the minority by systematically deconstructing their culture and demonising the group as terrorists bent on splitting China. There’s a breaking point when this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the public are largely ignorant of an alternative narrative because the vast majority only get to hear one side of the story. Thus, the violence is merely seen as proof positive that terrorists and splittists are at work and must be stopped. No nuance; no digging deeper for root causes and grievances; just a propaganda drive that incites a lust for revenge within the Han community (as was evident after last year’s Lhasa troubles). And so the cycle continues.

    About the media, China first. Despite claims that many Chinese are sceptical of what’s presented through state media and are immune to its content, the influence of the rhetoric and CCP-spin is all too evident. I hear and read evidence of the tiresome sound bites all the time. And being anti-CCP doesn’t preclude people from falling into the traps that propaganda sets for them.

    One of the clearest indicators of this is the knee-jerk scrutiny of ‘western’ media for signs of hypocrisy, bias, and error (which exist for sure) in their reporting of major events in China. Newsflash: China is BIG news. The world wants to know what’s happening there and incidents like the ongoing unrest is BIG news. Information is sketchy to begin with; reports get filed; inaccuracies occur. This is NOT evidence of a ‘western’ plot against China. It’s just the nature of things. And hoping that ‘western’ media don’t notice or fail to take an interest in such tragedies is a bit unrealistic.

    If you subscribed exclusively to FOX news before the US election, you’d be forgiven for believing that Obama is a terrorist. And if you expose yourself too much to CCTV and People’s Daily you believe the Dalai Lama is a terrorist. Neither are true, nor anything close to being true. In America, and other ‘western’ countries, alternatives and critics of FOX news abound. Alternatives to – and critics of – Chinese state media are not nearly so readily accessible.

    This is one reason why I take exception (quite rightly) when the conflicted feelings of some commenters gets channelled into misdirected anger towards anything perceived as ‘western’. This happens all too often, as can be seen in some earlier replies. And yes; my own responses are often a little inflammatory.

    Sometimes we all need to take a step back and see what’s going on for what it really is. And in this case, at this moment, China is facing serious social unrest along ethnic lines. Finding a solution that doesn’t involve overwhelming force and suppression of human rights is going to be the real challenge. The world is watching; and so they should be.

    “But, if we debate the media forever or the interests of nations, then we lose track of the heart of the matter, which is basic fairness for human beings.”

    Old Tales Retold, 08 Jul 2009 at 3:15 am


  17. “1) Many Chinese don’t know the difference between Hui and Uyghur…
    2) Many Chinese start blaming Islam.”

    I’ve heard the same kind of crap from people in every country I’ve visited. This sort of ignorance fuels ethnic/racial/religious conflict. People deserve a better education.


  18. Stuart,

    If you want to talk about human right in China, watch award-winning documentary “Lakshmi and me”. Otherwise, you are like an alien from Mars to teach people what to do in China.


  19. @ Wahaha,

    Why do you keep going on about this documentary that isn’t even about China? You need to flesh out your argument about development and political reform a little more. There are more democracies in the world than India. Have you even been to India (not that you need to to make an argument, but if it’s the only argument you make, it seems only fair to have been there)? Why are you so sure that India’s political system and its economic failings are linked?

    In regards to the issue at hand, rights for ethnic minorities and the fate of regions with very separate identities, India and China seem awfully similar, actually—differences in their political systems notwithstanding.


  20. “Why are you so sure that India’s political system and its economic failings are linked?”


    There is a big debate about democracy on fool’s mountain now.


  21. “If you want to talk about human right in China, watch award-winning documentary “Lakshmi and me”.”

    Translation: I have no reasonable, intelligent response to Stuart’s contribution so I’ll deflect attention from my inadequacy by talking about something totally unrelated.


  22. because Western Media indeed IS biased against China. It’s the fucking truth. How the fuck do you not see that?
    I used to think this was because they were inherent hostile to China, but having looked at the way the American Liberal and Conservative media “personalities” smear and slander each other, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is simply part of Western cultural behaviour. By comparison, Chinese press is much more anodyne and disinclined to mock or insult foreign leaders/cultures/policies etc unless there are Chinese interests involved.

    Seriously, idiots like Stuart are why I have very little patience in listening to ignorant whingey Westerners bitch on and on about China.
    Apparently it’s Beijing’s fault that a bunch of crazed sociopaths went around hacking people to death, because you know, they have “grievances”. Well fuck me, I have grievances too, where did I put my machete? After 200 fucking years of Western aggression, we have fuck loads of grievances. When are you motherfuckers gonna address our grievances?
    Oh wait, silly me! I forgot Chinese people are only allowed to have grievances against the evil totalitarian butchers of Beijing, right? Because it’s all about how nasty and inhuman us Chinese people are, innit? Everything else is distant history unless it reinforces the message. We got to stick to your party line, don’t we? CHINA-BAD CHINA-EVIL BLAH BLAH BLAH…….. YADA YADA…


  23. “…because Western Media indeed IS biased against China.”

    Occasionally, yes; overall, no. And not nearly to the extent that Chinese media spins negative about the ‘west.

    “After 200 fucking years of Western aggression, we have fuck loads of grievances. When are you motherfuckers gonna address our grievances?”

    I’ve told you about that chip on your shoulder.

    Btw, if by ‘your’ grievances you mean ‘Chinese’ grievances, don’t forget that Uyghurs are Chinese too. Right?


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