Last weekend's riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, represented the worst ethnic tension in China since marches by monks sparked anti-Chinese riots in Tibet last spring: 156 people died, at least 828 were injured, 261 buses and cars were torched, and 203 shops and 14 homes were burned down. Xinjiang's violence seems to have begun with a police crackdown on ethnic minority Muslim Uighurs protesting for justice on behalf of two Uighurs killed in a factory brawl in southern China. Even by the dubious official numbers, the death toll in Urumqi dwarfed last year's toll (22) in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Police have detained at least 1,434 people since Sunday, and there are 20,000 security forces patrolling Urumqi's streets today.
Crisis? What crisis? For perhaps the first time, China is managing the PR with aplomb. It moved just as swiftly to justify its crackdown as it did to deploy the crackdown itself. Party officials know that the riots risk tarnishing China's global image the way Lhasa did, so they have undertaken a swift program of public relations, getting the official version of the story out fast and busing in foreign journalists to visit the riot-torn city center. The Chinese are suddenly looking like credible spin doctors.
This is another step in the learning curve for the ruling Chinese Communist Party, accustomed to the one-party state privilege of going relatively unquestioned. Internet and mobile phones have made full news blackouts like after the 1976 Tangshan earthquake—or the 1997 riots and shootings in Yili (also in Xinjiang)—impossible, so the CCP has been forced to learn spin.
That's not to say news blackouts aren't in force. To contain the damage to its reputation, China's government has adopted a twin-track strategy with opposite treatment for old and new media. It swiftly shut off the Internet and mobile phones on Sunday to control news and imagery seeping out, while feeding the press and TV with pictures and information. Web connections were still unavailable late Tuesday in Xinjiang; mobile signals and texting services remained intermittent. Twitter has been blocked, too.
These measures are harsher than during the Lhasa riots, where residents remained able to speak to the outside world, though many were too fearful to say much. The contrast reflects Xinjiang's higher level of development and the government's greater anxiety, says Prof. Xiao Qiang at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. "Urumqi is a very wired city. … [If] the government want[s] to control this information, they have no choice" but to enforce a blackout, he says.
Unlike Tibet last year, the riot area remains open to foreign journalists, a sign that Beijing has learned media-management lessons from the globally hostile coverage it got for barring reporters in Tibet. The day after the Urumqi bloodshed, the State Council Information Office set up a Xinjiang Information Office in Urumqi to assist foreign reporters. It went further, inviting foreign media on a trip to Xinjiang to tour the riot zones, visit hospitals, and see the damage for themselves. Journalists were given CDs loaded with photos and TV clips. "They try to control the foreign journalists as much as possible by using this more sophisticated PR work rather than ban[ning] them," says Xiao.
Like Tibet, the presence of foreign reporters triggered a brave protest staged for their cameras. A group of about 200 women surged out of a market demanding the release of detained male relatives. For a moment, violence looked inevitable, but security forces stepped back. It was reminiscent of events in the Jorkang Temple in Lhasa when weeping monks burst in on the foreign press. Whatever the cost to the demonstrators, an unscripted moment was still a major embarrassment for the government.
Beijing has also used the Lhasa experience as a template to shape the message to its main audience, which is domestic. Official media depicts the rioters as thugs rather than people with political grievances. The approach is first to accuse a foreign-based exile group (in this case, the World Uighur Council) of inciting unrest and second to highlight the brutal violence between the region's two main ethnic groups—Uighurs, who make up half of Xinjiang's population and speak a Turkic language, and China's national majority, the Han. At the same time, state media ignores the role of the security forces in the body count.
Journalists on hospital visits have been shown Han Chinese with serious head wounds from beatings, and also Uighurs with bullet wounds. Yet the official Xinhua news agency's coverage has given most of its coverage to beatings of Han Chinese by Uighur rioters, such as taxi driver Zhao, who says he was assaulted by a baton-waving crowd of 20 who "beat me badly." The president of the People's Hospital said 233 of the 291 victims taken there were Han Chinese, while 39 were Uighur and some were from other minorities, according to Xinhua. The presence of Hui Muslims, another ethnic minority, among the victims highlights Muslim-on-Muslim violence, a tactic that could limit sympathy for Uighur separatists and undermine the claims of rights groups in the Arab world.
Another tried-and-true technique follows the script used in Tibet: Beijing has blamed exiled businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer for the violence. Kadeer, who heads a Washington-based confederation of exile organizations scattered through the U.S., Germany, Britain, and Australia, denies involvement. The provincial government has said "violence … was instigated and directed from abroad, and carried out by outlaws in the country." Similar florid language was applied to the Dalai Lama after the Lhasa riots; he was described as a "jackal in monk's robes." The official media "is very unified," says Xiao. "They all point to Rebiya Kadeer, they all have the same narrative, there's no independent reporting—it's a very highly controlled version of the story."
A final piece of spin targets the Uighur population directly and hints that the CCP feels it needs to address Uighur grievances. The Urumqi riot began when Uighur factory workers thousands of miles away in Guangdong province were falsely accused of raping Han women by a disgruntled former workmate. A fight broke out, killing two Uighurs and injuring more than 100. Since Urumqi's protest erupted, the government's Uighur-language TV channel has carried a statement from Xinjiang provincial government chairman Nur Bekri promising "strenuous efforts" to investigate the killings in Guangdong. On Tuesday, Xinhua also reported 13 arrests over the false allegations. This attempt at redress segments the message. Awareness of local grievances is aired on regional TV in the Uighur language, while the wider message of Uighur thuggery plays to a receptive national audience. Prejudice against Uighurs often portrays them as violent criminals. "There's this stereotype of Uighurs, that they're thieves or … involved in the drug trade," says Prof. Barry Sautman, a specialist on China's ethnic policies at Hong Kong's Science and Technology University.
To be sure, the CCP can't answer every uncomfortable development. Whereas the Dalai Lama has raised Tibet's profile over many years, the Xinjiang riots threaten to highlight a previously obscure ethnic issue. Critics of China's treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority had already made headway in the U.S., which is still searching for a country willing to accept 14 Uighurs released from Guantánamo Bay. (U.S. judges agreed with the detainees' lawyers that they risked execution if sent back to China, where the courts deal harshly with anyone suspected of opposing Beijing's rule over Xinjiang, whose 10 million Uighurs make up half the region's population and speak a language close to Turkish.) With 1,434 fresh Uighur detainees, China puts itself back in the cross hairs of international human-rights groups. Beijing may have learned spin doctoring, but it's unlikely to buy the adage that there's no such thing as bad press.