Olympics-China Media Watch: Terrorism in English, crime in Chinese

Information about today’s attack on border police in the western Chinese city of Kashgar is coming almost entirely from the official Xinhua News Agency. What’s interesting is the huge difference in the agency’s own reports, depending on what language you’re reading. In English, the attack was a suspected act of terrorism by Uighur separatists. In Chinese, it barely warrants a mention, and it was described as simply a criminal act.

On the Chinese-language Web site of Xinhua today, you have to look past the giant red headline reading “Beijing welcomes guests from all over the world” and other good Olympics news to see it. The item comes 18th in a list of other daily headlines, directly after a story noting that foreign journalists see Hu Jintao as “magnanimous and confident.”

The headline in Chinese reads “In Xinjiang’s Kashgar, a violent raid on border police – 16 dead.” The entire text of the paragraph-long article (very roughly translated by me) follows:

Urumqi, Xinjiang, August 4–From Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region police, this correspondent has learned that on August 4 at 8 am, when the Kashgar border defense squadron went out for morning drills, in front of the Yijin Hotel, two suspected criminals in a car ambushed them and initiated explosives on the car. As a result, 16 people were killed and 16 were injured. The two suspects have been arrested, and the case is under further investigation.  

And that’s it.

No mention of terrorism, or the security threat from East Turkistan Islamic Movement, or China’s success at thwarting terrorist plots targeting the Olympics–all major elements of Xinhua’s own report in English. The English version also has other details that are missing from the Chinese version, reporting that the attackers jumped off the truck, entered the police station and attacked the officers with knives.

Given that nearly all the information is coming from the Chinese government, it’s difficult to know exactly what the truth is. What’s clear is that the censors are savvy to presenting one image to a domestic audience and another one to the international crowd. In general, Chinese officials like to play down bad news, so it makes sense that the Chinese version of Xinhua doesn’t give a lot of space to the attack. On the other hand, China has come under criticism by western critics for using terrorism as a pretext for draconian security measures. Presenting the attack as a terrorist incident gives more weight to China’s argument that the situation calls for a heavy-handed approach.

Caijing, a sophisticated Beijing-based financial magazine, picks up on the difference between the Chinese and English reports in Xinhua. Its own (Chinese-language) Web report on the Kashgar attack reports the extra details and terrorism angle from Xinhua’s account in English, with background about the government’s terrorism fears in the western region of Xinjiang.

A managing editor from Caijing gave a talk at New York’s Columbia University a few months ago in which he revealed a few tricks the magazine uses to get around censorship. One tactic was speed–getting to a story before the Central Propaganda Department has a chance to shut down coverage. Another one was to exploit differences of opinion between different branches of the government. It looks like Caijing used both those tactics today to give Chinese-language readers access to the same reports the English-language audience got.