Censorship with Chinese characters
The day I thanked the Big Brothers of Beijing who whiteout all the naughty bits in their country’s newspapers and TV.
A decade ago, the Chinese government invited myself and some other Indian journalists to visit their country. While there were obvious limitations in state sponsorship, the great attraction was that the trip included a week in Xinjiang, a province in China’s extreme northwest. Xinjiang is more than off the beaten path – it helps to realize that it is so far from Beijing that it straddles the same latitudes as Delhi and Kashmir.
But Xinjiang is also home to a restive Uighur minority. The Uighurs are sullen and Muslim. Some harbour dreams of independence, all despise the Han Chinese and very small number have taken up Islamicist terrorism against Beijing. They aren’t very effective, according to some Pakistani truck drivers we met in the capital Urumqi. “Lazy and drunk,” they said dismissively. But they occasionally light a spark.
The morning we were to fly from Beijing to Urumqi, the English version of China Daily slid under our hotel doors had a story that an “explosion” had killed some 70 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army in Xinjiang. It made the highly suspect claim that a truck carrying explosives had ridden over “a bumpy road.”
My heart sank. The trip is over, I thought. We had heard that Beijing was sending foreign journalists into Xinjiang in part because they believed it had been “pacified” and could now be showcased to the world. I shared my views with the other journalists when we went down to the hotel lobby that morning, suitcases ready, and waited for our official interpreter and handler, Mr Li.
But Mr Li showed up promptly with two taxis and without any fuss drove us to the airport. We flew for hours across China. The sky was clear much of the way. I had a window seat and can still remember vividly the dark purple, deeply fissured terrain that we passed over. While it may look enormous an a map, the truth is that China has only a little more arable land than Bangladesh. Much of the rest is formidably hostile to human settlement. And you could see much of it, both in terms of its vast size and its inhospitability, on this flight.
We landed at Urumqi and Mr Li took us to a shiny multi-storied hotel. When we had checked in, I commended Mr Li. “I hadn’t thought we would be brought here after what happened here yesterday,” I said.
He looked puzzled. “What happened?”
I pulled out the China Daily and showed him the story. His eyebrows rose.
He quickly pulled out his own newspaper. It was in Chinese which I can’t read, but I presume it was the People’s Daily. He quickly went through it, page by page. “No mention in here,” he said, and shrugged.
I thought he sounded relieved. He had the perfect cover if his boss rang up and yelled at him: “Are you mad to bring foreign journalists the day after a terrorist attack?” He had the perfect excuse. He could say: “How was I to know? The Chinese language newspapers and television didn’t mention it.”
It crept into the press a day or two later. China’s then economic czar, Zhu Rongji, was shown visiting victims of the blast and denouncing “splittism” – the code word for ethnic separatist groups like the Uighur East Turkestan Movement. I presumed that confirmed that it was Uighurs who were responsible. though some British diplomats, years later, were to say they actually thought it was an ordnance malfunction.
It was one of the few times that I’ve ever thanked censorship, especially one as tight as China’s. Of course, I was back to cursing it the evening of my first day in Urumqi when I found that most of the better known English news websites – the BBC, CNN, most US and UK newspapers, and of course Yahoo and Google – had been blocked. I got around it by going to the Indian website, rediff.com, which carried the same stuff but was fortunately unknown to the Chinese censors.