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New Strategy After Riots: China Controls Foreign Press By Welcoming Them

July 7, 2009

Just one month after China’s Great Firewall boosted internet blockades for the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, China has once again blocked social networking sites like Twitter, and has slowed internet and cell phone service in a vain attempt to keep unfiltered news from escaping the country. This in response to riots that began Sunday between two conflicting ethnic groups in western China.

But this time the government seems to know they can’t keep the gory images or the staggering body count (topping 150 according to some reports) from reaching the rest of the world. For a country about to celebrate its 60th year of communism, internet censorship comes as no surprise, but unlike Iran’s recent blanket censorship and ban on reporters during the post-election protests, China is so far welcoming foreign journalists.

On top of creating a press center and offering discounted hotel rooms, journalists were invited to tour Urumqi–the capitol of the western Xinjiang region where the riots originated–including visits to the hospitals treating over 1,000 wounded Han Chinese and Uighur protesters.

Journalists are being taken by the govn’t around the hospitals, and now to an area full of burned out Han shops,” the Daily Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore wrote on Twitter.

Twitter has made a name for itself due in part to its use as a runaround against censors everywhere from Moldova to Iran. This site is just one of the many that has made it impossible to seal information inside a city as China has tried to do both with the recent Tiananmen anniversary and with the Tibet protests last year.

With last month’s backlash and embarrassing videos of plain-clothed guards trying to block reporters with opened umbrellas, perhaps China sees this as the better way to take control of the press–and it is hard criticize them for unrolling the welcome mat, no matter their intentions.

Knowing full well that the journalists are being used as pawns of government propaganda, one can only assume that they will look past what they are being spoon fed. And that presence and ability to see firsthand and report as they please can only be seen as a small victory for freedom of the press.

The riots began on Sunday as a peaceful protest by the Uighur, a group of Muslim Chinese, for the alleged 25 Uighur factory workers that were killed in southern China. State media reported only two deaths in the incident and the disparity coupled with with wild rumors lead to increasing tensions. Accusations of unreported (and often untrue) violence from both the Uighur and the Han Chinese has continue to fuel the rage.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.