The World According to XinhuaChinese state media's coverage of Egypt.
The world portrayed in China’s state media has a certain disconnect to reality. Hence the joke from ordinary Chinese: “When can my life resemble the one on CCTV”? Recently President Hu visited a woman in Beijing who said that she paid just 77 yuan in rent per month for low-income housing. Netizens immediately smelled foul play and postulated that she was a public servant and had gotten the apartment through political connections. In all likelihood the woman really did qualify for low-income housing but the story shows how little credibility official media has among the tech-savvy middle class and how harshly the utopian world it portrays deviates from the daily life of most Chinese.
But don’t worry, the Chinese government won’t let something like reality subvert their grand narrative. If netizens sow disbelief and discontent on the Internet, then the next logical step is to carefully police the Internet. And so we turn to the government’s treatment of the unrest in Egypt. Though news of the events are not blocked per se, the government has a clear idea of how they would like the events to be interpreted. According to the Christian Science Monitor:
“All media nationwide must use Xinhua’s reporting on the Egyptian riots,” read a directive issued last Friday, referring to the state run Xinhua news agency. “It is strictly forbidden to translate foreign media coverage,” the order said, warning that websites that did not censor comments about Egypt would be “shut down by force.”
Official media is instead focusing on the evacuation of Chinese nationals and hinting at the chaos that attempts at political reform can bring. As a result of this directive, microblogging sites like Sina and Sohu have banned searches with the word “Egypt.” Any such search returns an ominous, “According to the laws in force, the results of your search cannot be given.”
One assumes that the Chinese government feels uneasy about the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt because they see more than just a little of themselves in the events there. Mass demonstrations against a corrupt, autocratic government led by popular uprisings sparked by unemployment and inflation. Tens of thousands of reform-minded demonstrators gathered in a square in the capital city surrounded by tanks. Sound familiar? Perhaps the Chinese government understands that these events are more than just echoes of their past, but could be scenes from their future if they are not careful. (To be fair, one difference is that Egypt’s military has vowed not to fire on protesters.)
Though many similarities can be drawn between the governments of China and Egypt, the countries themselves remain vastly different. Even if all the news about Egypt were broadcast to Chinese citizens, I doubt there would be cause for immediate concern. The fact remains that many Chinese trust their government, or at least support it. Despite the increasingly severe social problems plaguing China, life has gotten better for the majority of citizens and very few would argue that regime change would benefit them at present. But if unadulterated news about Tunisia and Egypt, and more generally about political reform and human rights, were available to Chinese people, they might get ideas. Ideas about how a government should be responsible to its people and about how, even today, grassroots anger can incite change or even topple a government. The Communist Party, which turned an ideology into a revolution and a revolution into a country, knows exactly how dangerous ideas like that can be.
The CCP’s response to the events in Egypt brings their age-old political strategy—manufacture a narrative, prevent conflicting reports, and curtail discussion—into the 21st century. We are witnessing a government that is getting better and better at controlling the Internet, which is one of the few things that can threaten its power. As the protests began in Cairo, the Egyptian government blocked Twitter, which inflamed protesters and drew attention to the unrest. The Chinese government doesn’t have to worry about that—Twitter is already blocked and its Chinese clones are obediently practicing self-censorship. One thing’s for sure: the Chinese government will never allow a website to precipitate regime change (though I’d like to see Wikileaks try). On this last day in the year of the tiger, let’s pause for a second to reflect on how a single website promoting human interaction and the facilitating the transmission of information has become the greatest fear of oppressive governments. What a beautiful world we live in.