Olympics: Some reporters arrive in Kashgar

Foreign journalists have started making their way to Kashgar today after the official Xinhua News Agency reported that 16 police officers were killed when two terrorists drove a truck into an electricity pole and threw two home-made explosives sometime around 8 a.m. Monday. So far, the few foreigners who have made the double-hop plane connection to Kashgar through Urumqi, haven’t disputed that account. The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts made the trip, and a Reuters team got there by nighttime. AP last reported from Urumqi at this writing. Others tell CPJ they are on the way, and it looks like access to the region has not been blocked yet. Maybe the media lockdown we saw in Buddhist Tibet in March won’t be repeated in the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, a concern we wrote about yesterday.

The Reuters team did report harassment of some journalists by local authorities and had pictures to back up their story. But that’s often the nature of the journalism business in remote areas of China, where local authorities are accustomed to having their way. “The ocean is wide, the mountains high, and the emperor is far away,” according to one Chinese saying that explains the tendencies of local governments to ignore the central government.

The bigger problem comes when local and central authorities work together to set a pattern of harassment. We saw that happen in Sichuan, after the devastating May 12 earthquake changed from a humanitarian story to a political one in which angry survivors wanted answers from the government. There, local authorities were acting on their own and then under the direction of the central government to suppress coverage of the story. When the story first broke, the Central Propaganda Department, which hands out daily, often hourly, directives to editors across the country, was simply overrun and ignored by Chinese reporters. It managed to regain control a few days later. By the time the story turned political and criticism of the government was growing, the propaganda department was back on top of the story.

I mentioned yesterday that some China media watchers in Hong Kong have heard that the central government is reassessing how it handled the March near-total shutdown of foreign and local coverage of ethnic rioting in Tibet. The news vacuum that followed turned out to be counter-productive, fueling speculation, driving journalists to try deception to get to the story, and placing greater emphasis on the firsthand (and sometimes overwrought) accounts of tourists. The government and many ethnically Han Chinese saw the story as the government’s legitimate crackdown on an ethnic uprising. But that angle was lost, and any empathy the government could have earned internationally was wasted in its media blackout. A new approach might be the spin tactic that works so well in the West–don’t lock up the message but control it in way that reflects well on the authorities. It’s far too early to suggest that is what’s happening now in Kashgar. But it seems unlikely the central authorities will try to close off Xinjiang as they did Tibet; the threat of a broader uprising isn’t comparable.

There was another antigovernment outbreak yesterday, in Beijing. AP and others reported that about 20 people evicted from their homes for urban renewal projects staged a small demonstration a few blocks from Tiananmen Square and were quickly surrounded by police. “We don’t oppose the Olympics. But it’s wrong for them to demolish our house. It’s wrong,” said Liu Fumei, who scuffled with women from the government-backed neighborhood committee who pulled Liu and the other protesters away.

The scene was far different than last week’s when the cops went after Hong Kong reporters covering a scuffle between people lined up for last-minute Olympics tickets. AP says the police did not interfere with the media coverage yesterday.

Many journalists say they have been receiving calls from Chinese citizens with particular complaints against the government. They expect more such manifestations, just not in the three designated places set aside for protests. It looks like it’s nearly impossible to get the permit necessary to exercise speech rights, even in those venues set aside for that.

(Reporting from Hong Kong)