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Media Coverage of Protests in China

2014 was a tough year for the People’s Republic of China and its claim over territories. Last spring, the terrorist attacks in Xinjiang and Kunming displayed the increasing brutality of the Uyghur’s separatist movement. In the fall, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong demonstrated the region’s demands for greater political autonomy in the upcoming elections. The Taiwanese Sunflower Movement, which rejects the growing Chinese political and economic encroachment in Taiwan, further exemplifies these anti-Chinese Communist Party movements that have intensified over the last year.

With the exception of the Kunming attacks, which former President Xi Jinping called the “Chinese 9/11”, the Chinese government has largely chosen to remain silent in face of the protests and international criticism. However, Beijing’s effort to suppress the movements has evidenced that they pose a real threat. Though the wide international scrutiny drawn from the movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong did not succeed in pressuring Beijing last year, it certainly did put the Chinese officials in an uncomfortable position. Beijing knows that these socio-political tensions stain its public image, and thus it would be in its best interest to reach graceful closures. Hence, should the anti-Chinese protests continue throughout 2015, and should international media continue to cover them in detail, Beijing may very well be eventually impelled to engage in direct talks with the protestors.

It is vital to recognize international media coverage as a key element in pressuring Beijing to reform its heavy-handed policies. The translation of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement into several different languages, the BBC’s daily coverage of the Sunflower Movement, and the criticisim over Uyghur conditions that presumably motivated the train stabbings in Kunming mobilized several non-governmental organizations and governments to issue statements condemning China’s violations of human rights. Indeed, the Human Rights Watch 2014 report on China cited international journalists as witnesses for the abuses taking place in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Historically, this kind of international condemnation has indeed had important effects in some of Beijing’s policies: China’s Counterterrorism Law, which was presented in November 2014, continues to be revised due to widespread condemnation from several non-governmental organizations.

While media coverage has significantly raised awareness of the internal tensions in China and has pressured the Chinese government to adopt a more conciliatory attitude in certain instances, access to information has become increasingly limited over the past few years. For national journalists, the tightly controlled travel permits for reporters, plus the stabbing of a newspaper editor in Hong Kong last year and the government crackdown upon China Central Television last month, have increased a trend towards self-censorship. International journalists have been similarly targeted; according to the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, threats, expulsion (visas not being renewed) and retribution against news assistants are among the commonplace consequences for journalists reporting on “sensitive” issues.

As a result of increased self-censorship, self-delusion has also been on the rise in Chinese media. Images of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong were presented in mainland China as either nationalist rallies, or as disorganized and immature rebel activity that was not to be taken seriously. Similarly, the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan was hardly discussed in Chinese media, with the People’s Daily instead focusing on the economic benefits that increasing cross-Strait investment brought to both China and Taiwan.

Most interesting however, is the overall absence of reporting—both nationally and internationally—on Tibet in the past year. While the self-immolations in 2012 were widely reported as manifestations against human rights abuses, the past year showed almost no information about one of China’s oldest socio-political movements. It seems that, because of the technologically handled movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, plus the sensational nature of the Kunming attacks, the Tibetan cause has been largely overlooked in recent international media.

Problems in Tibet have not waned in recent years. Since the pro-Tibetan mass uprising in March 2008, organized shortly before the Summer Olympics, Tibet has become increasingly difficult to enter for foreign journalists. The obstacles in obtaining a transit visa to the region have largely preempted international reporters from commenting on the current conditions of the region. Moreover, the increase of Chinese security forces in the area after the 2008 uprisings also resulted in a change of protest tactics– in 2012, 84 Tibetans resorted to self-immolation as a method to denounce the Human Rights abuses that the Chinese government commits against them.

To be sure, international journalists have the similar difficulty entering Xinjiang, the native province of the Uyghurs. However, unlike the Uyghurs, who have committed terrorist attacks all around China to advance their separatist demands, the Tibetans have resorted to self-destruction tactics—mostly in their own province—to raise awareness of their precarious conditions. Unfortunately, due to the censorship policies that the Chinese government has enforced since 2008, it is challenging for the international community to keep informed on this movement. Consequently, the Chinese government was able to largely ignore this issue over the past year.

The Chinese government’s luck will not continue throughout 2015. On February 5, President Obama and the Dalai Lama met at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C., sparking anger among the Chinese government officials. However, the Chinese statement released a few days prior to the meeting, demanding that no government receives the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama, seems to suggest that Beijing’s stance on the Tibet will remain unchanged this year.

The Chinese government has entered its New Year with a handful of ethnic and political issues that will require not only assertive government policies, but also international sympathy in order to be resolved. To be clear, with Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet all demanding self-autonomy, Beijing is in dire need of comprehensive and appealing policies that can successfully represent and give voice to China’s diverse population. This of course, is by no means an easy task, and considering the Party’s structure, it will take—at best—several more years of negotiation to attain a more pluralist government.

However, from a more immediate perspective, Beijing should at least adopt a more conciliatory attitude if it wants to retain territorial unity. While the ban of national and international media coverage on the Tibet allowed China to temporarily shift focus away from the region, its continuation will only deepen Western bias against China, and increase the seriousness of the conflict in the region. Both the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Prime minister in exile Lobsang Sangay have been denouncing China’s censorship as evidence of the daily abuses taking place in the Tibet. If Xi ever wants to reach “graceful closure” to these ethnic conflicts, adopting a more open and sensitive stance globally­­– including lifting travel bans for media– is the place to start.

About the Author

Paula is a second year student concentrating in International Relations. Originally from Mexico City, she is irremediably obsessed with China and Hong Kong. She likes Latin American literature, peppermint tea, and cats. She thinks green is not a creative colour.