More media nuance keeps the party in people's hearts

Mark Magnier in Lanzhou, China
March 18, 2008

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EVEN as China faces global criticism for its crackdown on Tibetan Buddhists, it is winning the battle that it most cares about: support for its policies among Chinese back home.

One key factor is a media strategy that, while still blunt and heavily reliant on censorship and propaganda, shows more nuance than usual for the lumbering Communist Party.

Last week the Government used something it traditionally viewed as a big negative - any suggestion that it is not in total control - to its advantage by going large with print, still and video coverage of Tibetans attacking Han Chinese in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and destroying their property.

Not only does this rather ironically paint its massive police force and the Chinese state as something of a victim, it also stirs up feelings of fear and anger among many Han, the nation's majority population, which adds a personal dimension to the riots.

The coverage has also bolstered the regime's unsubstantiated claim that its nemesis, the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, is masterminding the deadly protests from abroad and that Tibetan monks are anything but neutral, non-political and peace-loving.

Many of the videos of the riots promoted on the state-run CCTV website have been shot and edited to highlight crimson-robed monks bashing and burning with the best of the mob. And to the extent the Dalai Lama has stopped short of condemning the monks and the protest, China gains points.

"In this crisis, their strategy has been pretty effective," said Xiao Qiang, the director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley. "They've been able to portray it as 'we Chinese' versus 'they Tibetans' and seen public opinion go their way."

The state's information guardians have also picked up a few other tricks. They are using more individual stories of Han family victims in Tibet, aware that a personal narrative is far more powerful than vague propaganda language. And they have sprinkled their official dispatches with terminology such as as bloggers, netizens and blogosphere to look more current and inclusive.

At the same time the approach is more of a paint job than a renovation as China's propaganda ministry continues to use many traditional tactics honed in dusty Soviet offices decades ago.

Unrest is blamed on "outside" elements, Tibetans are urged to report on other "troublemakers", and there are hints, although no guarantees, of leniency for those who turn themselves in.

On other fronts the "Great Firewall", China's internet filtering and monitoring system, has been in overdrive, deleting comments furiously and blocking internet searches of such terms as "Tibet," "Lhasa," "demonstration" and "March 14" - the day at least 10 people were killed in the protests.

Some pro-Government comments have found their way onto the internet, although many are anonymous and there is no fast way to determine their origin.

"The control strategy comes from the very top, and it's well orchestrated," Xiao said. "It's more intense than I've ever seen."

Los Angeles Times