Monday, July 14, 2008

Guizhou Weng'an riots

EastSouthWestNorth, a China newsblog by a Hong Kong resident named Roland Soong (wikipedia) has continued to update its compilation of stories and photos on the Weng'an Mass Incident. Currently, the article at the bottom of the page is a long summary of events from a Chinese newsmagazine called Southern Weekend, a weekly newspaper from Guangzhou, China (wikipedia). The article illustrates something that's interested me about coverage of the event: The official news agency, Xinhua, at first tried to whitewash the event, but was never able to establish its spin and suffered servere criticism on blogs and both foreign and domestic news coverage for its inept attempts: its bland weasel-worded accounts of the incident, its quotes from officials speaking bureaucrateeze and quotes from locals who were obviously, and painfully, trying to say what they thought officials wanted to hear. So, as things turned out, the Chinese press coverage was pretty thorough and pretty well balanced; raising questions and pointing out contradictions in different accounts. Other things about coverage are also interesting: (1) how much cell-phone photography there was, how quickly photos and videos showed up on blogs, how inventive people were in getting around internet censorship in China; (2) how the riot managed to limit itself to destruction of property with no loss of life and very little injury to participants or police; (3) how the frame enlarged from the tragic death of a 15-year-old to include the ineptitude of local officials and police and the legitimate grievances of residents; and (4) how much the current Chinese version of totalitarianism lacks totality -- police so unprepared to deal with crowd violence that the police station itself could be trashed, the family of the dead girl able to claim her body and display it (for payment of contributions) in a refrigerated coffin on the banks of the river where she died, the friends who were with her at time of death first sequestered by authorities but then released to be interviewed and, being interviewed, not mouthing official pieties, and the release, finally, of information that balanced against rumors of rape and murder (some plausible motiviations for the girl to be distraught because of actions by her family). I don't expect there will ever be a single "truth" that emerges from the story, but that's normal for emotion-charged events outside Communist societies as well as within them.

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