Beijing's masterful blackout

Plainclothes police hold barriers before the scene of a car crash at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on October 28, 2013. -- PHOTO: AFP
Plainclothes police hold barriers before the scene of a car crash at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on October 28, 2013. -- PHOTO: AFP

If there is one thing Beijing seems to have mastered, it is controlling, and massaging, the message.

The power of Chinese censorship was rarely clearer than in its reaction to the “violent, premeditated terrorist attack" near the politically charged Tiananmen Square on Oct 28 - the first in Beijing's recent history.

Searing images of the carnage in terror attacks elsewhere remain etched in the mind. But Beijing's quick clinical clean up of the scene and purging of photos online have effectively muted debate over why three Xinjiang suspects crashed a jeep into the capital's most famous tourist site before setting it on fire, killing themselves and two tourists and injuring 40.

The horror of the Boston Marathon bombings in April, for instance, that killed three, including a little boy, and maimed many more, was encapsulated by the haunting image of a man in a cowboy hat wheeling to safety a victim whose legs had been blown off. The unscripted photograph - with its bloodied limbs and chaos, and raw with emotion - not only told of the pain and anguish, but of courage, compassion and the indomitable human spirit.

That photo, and similar media coverage like it of the 2005 bus bombings in London and attack on Madrid’s trains in 2004, spurred debate and discussion, prompting reexamination and the soul-searching of various governments' policies. There such chilling images and the intensive media coverage often hold politicians' feet to the fire as citizens demand answers.

In stark contrast, the Beijing terrorist attack, however, followed a strict government-controlled script. It censored news and micro-blog accounts and deleted user-sourced photographs of its aftermath. The government seems to want to pretend it never happened.

Within minutes of the crash, police erected high blue and green barriers around the site and temporarily blocked roads to the square. They also detained two reporters on the scene and deleted images “from their digital equipment”, media reports said.

As a result, the only few photos of the “terrorist attack” show the blazing shell of the car and plumes of black smoke. The only publicly available photos that define the crash now are those that simply look like an unfortunate car accident. Coupled with Chinese state media's light coverage of the crash, the incident is on the back-burner and its political significance at risk of quickly being forgotten.

This clearly works in Beijing's favour. Its claims that the violence was masterminded by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which the US designated as a terrorist organisation more than a decade ago, are difficult to challenge given the dearth of alternative information sources.

In China at least, no one seems to be talking about the western province of Xinjiang, home to the mostly Muslim Uighurs, who say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination and oppressive religious controls under Beijing’s policies.

And with little known about the Uighur family, a husband, wife and mother, who died in the crash more than a week later , the reasons behind what seems like an act of sheer desperation remain unanswered. This vice-like grip on information has effectively prevented the Xinjiang issue, a region which has seen a string of violent clashes over the past few years, from dominating the headlines and becoming a hot-button topic like it might in other countries where the media is freer.

But censorship has its own downside. It is often a playground for conspiracy theorists and a fertile breeding ground for doubt. An opinion piece CNN recently ran on its website, for instance, questioned the official claim that Muslim Uighur “terrorists” had masterminded the assault. The article, by George Washington University professor Sean Roberts who studies the Turkic Uighur ethnic group, said that Beijing’s “lack of transparency historically” over the conviction of Uighurs on charges of political violence is a good enough reason to doubt “the characterisation” of the events.

“One feels compelled to question whether Monday’s alleged attack was a well-prepared terrorist act or a hastily assembled cry of desperation from a people on the extreme margins of the Chinese state’s monstrous development machine,” he wrote.

Not surprisingly, this has drawn the ire of Beijing. The Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party–linked newspaper, vehemently countered the report, saying in a Nov 4 editorial that “CNN is way out of line this time.” It added that it was of a “vile nature” to present such a view in the mainstream media.

But Beijing's news blackout might have backfired in some way. After the Sept 11 attacks, the world rallied around America in a global outpouring of grief and sympathy for the victims. Stories of hope and courage in the face of adversity - and even death - were translated into unprecedented goodwill for the country.

By contrast, Beijing's cold and calculated response has brought to a grinding halt to any empathy that might have ensued. The faces - or injuries - of the innocent victims and their first-hand stories were not told. The world could not share in the outrage at the senseless loss of lives - the death toll remained a mere number, not a mother taken away from her children or a husband snatched away from his young wife.

In fact, I felt more sympathy for the maimed victims of the Boston bombings on the other side of the world than I could for the nameless and faceless victims of the fiery Tiananmen crash last week in the city where I live and work. That was until I visited Tongren Hospital, where some of the injured were being treated, in the hopes of interviewing some of them for a story.

There, I met the family of a 24-year-old Chinese mother of a one-year-old holding vigil outside the hospital's intensive care unit where she had entered her ninth hour of surgery.

There was also a Japanese national who told me how he lost four teeth and needed 16 stitches for a huge gash under his bottom lip and the brother of a Filipino woman killed in the crash who broke down in tears when recounting the incident.

These encounters brought home the stark reality of the fatal crash and gave it a human side that was sorely missing from the unemotional reports being churned out by the Chinese state media.

So while it might have successfully quieted talk about the contentious issues surrounding the restive Xinjiang autonomous region, Beijing missed the chance to show the world that it too can react with poise, dignity and grace when under fire - what would be the makings of a confident and secure emerging superpower.

esthert@sph.com.sg