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Build a wall- China’s response to the unrest in Egypt

Posted by Author on February 3, 2011

The Economist, Feb 3rd 2011, BEIJING-

THE Chinese Communist Party’s Publicity Department (or Propaganda Department, a closer rendering of the Chinese) is adept at controlling news from abroad that might inflame sentiment at home. As communism collapsed in Eastern Europe 20 years ago, it kept all but the barest news out of the domestic media, jammed foreign broadcasts and ordered vigilance over fax machines.

In response to the unrest in Egypt, the department has apparently instructed the Chinese media to use only dispatches sent by the official news agency, Xinhua, and either to bury news of events there or play up aspects that show the costs of turmoil. Reporting the travails of stranded Chinese tourists, or the government’s noble attempts to rescue them, is fine, but sympathy with the protesters is taboo. The department’s instructions to the media are, as usual, a secret, but their effect is clear.
The party has also been busy trying to control the internet. Twitter has been blocked in  China since 2009, but home-grown versions are hugely popular. Anyone trying to follow postings by users with an interest in Egypt, however, might struggle. Merely searching for the word “Egypt” in Sina Weibo, one of China’s leading Twitter-like services, produces a warning that “according to the relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results have not been displayed”. On Baidu, a big news portal, a prominent list of “hot search terms” includes “the return of compatriots stranded in Egypt”, but nothing else.

Chinese news reports have briefly mentioned the disruption of internet and mobile-phone services in Egypt. They have not, however, discussed China’s pioneering use of such techniques to impede the mobilisation of crowds. Use of the internet and mobile phones for international calls and text-messaging was cut off for months in the far-western region of Xinjiang after ethnic clashes there in 2009.

On February 1st the party’s main mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, relegated Egyptian politics to five terse paragraphs on page three but published a full page of articles under the headline, “The Internet is Warming the Whole of Society”. The internet, one scholar was quoted as saying, is a “great promoter of social change”. The party knows that all too well.

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