Economy protests worry Beijing

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Rather than burying bad news in terse, vague reports on the back pages of newspapers while rumors rage on the Internet, the propaganda ministry has told state media to be the first to report negative news so as to “actively set the news agenda” and control what details are released into the public domain.

The day after 2,000 people rioted in Longnan, a detailed report from the official Xinhua news agency appeared on the front page of the local party newspaper, Gansu Daily.

And in a country where subtle shifts in semantics are telling, Xinhua for the first time used the word “strike” to describe the action taken by taxi drivers in Chongqing. It previously used the deliberately ambiguous term “ceased operation.”

Chinese academics such as Shi Anbin, a professor of media studies at Beijing´s Tsinghua University, called this loosening of censorship significant progress.

“The government has changed its mentality. Before the Sichuan earthquake and the Olympics, it adhered to media control. Now it has accepted the idea of news management and is learning the techniques of political communication and PR used by Western governments in times of crisis,” Mr. Shi said.

“This is a groundbreaking notion. Rather than respecting the party´s interests, it is respecting the principle of news communication,” he said.

But David Bandurski, a researcher at the China Media Project (CMP) at the University of Hong Kong, said the new spin control strategy operates “as an open hand that deals a backhanded slap to the news.”

Referring to the reporting of the Longnan riots in an analysis on the CMP Web site, he argued that the party´s more active approach to delivering news through official channels is narrowing the coverage in more liberal newspapers.

“We are all … consuming and transmitting the same ‘authoritative´ [Communist Party] facts,” he wrote.

Photographs of the Longnan riot widely circulated on the Chinese Internet appear to highlight official state media´s economy with the truth. They show elderly protesters with bloodied faces and members of the People´s Armed Police dishing out beatings, none of which was reported by Xinhua.

However, the Chinese government has shown a pronounced willingness to portray itself as more accountable to its people in light of the unrest, which some Chinese analysts said heralds more transparent governance.

After the taxi strikes in Chongqing, Bo Xilai, the city´s top official and a member of the Communist Party´s Politburo, sat down with protesters to discuss their grievances in a live online broadcast and agreed to meet the majority of their demands.

In recent days, central government officials have reiterated the need for more people-centered politics to preserve stability.

“More channels should be opened to solicit the people´s opinions and local government should spare no effort to solve their problems,” Xinhua quoted Zhou Yongkang, the Communist Party secretary of the public security ministry, as saying.

The problem for the government is that these efforts to accommodate the public´s concerns appear to have legitimized the right to protest.

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