http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/04/world ... a.html?hpw
In Leaked Lecture, Details of Chinaâ€™s News Cleanups
By ANDREW JACOBS
BEIJING â€” As the nation held its collective breath, Chinaâ€™s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, floated back to the motherland, having orbited Earth 14 times in the Shenzhou 5, or Divine Capsule.
It was October 2003, and the national broadcaster CCTV carried live coverage of the momentous event, from Mr. Yangâ€™s famous pleasantries uttered in space â€” â€œI feel goodâ€� â€” to the instant that workers opened the capsule door to reveal the pale but smiling face of a hero, offering irrefutable evidence that Chinaâ€™s maiden manned space voyage had gone off without a hitch.
Or had it?
In a lecture he gave to a group of journalism students last month, a top official at Xinhua, the state news agency, said that the mission was not so picture-perfect. The official, Xia Lin, described how a design flaw had exposed the astronaut to excessive G-force pressure during re-entry, splitting his lip and drenching his face in blood. Startled but undaunted by Mr. Yangâ€™s appearance, the workers quickly mopped up the blood, strapped him back in his seat and shut the door. Then, with the cameras rolling, the cabin door swung open again, revealing an unblemished moment of triumph for all the world to see.
The content of Mr. Xiaâ€™s speech, transcribed and posted online by someone who attended the May 15 lecture at Tianjin Foreign Studies University, has become something of a sensation in recent days, providing the Chinese a rare insight into how their news is stage-managed for mass consumption.
Titled â€œUnderstanding Journalistic Protocols for Covering Breaking News,â€� the speech was intended to help budding journalists understand Xinhuaâ€™s dual mission: to give Chinese leaders a fast and accurate picture of current events and to deftly manipulate that picture for the public to ensure social harmony, and by extension, the Communist Partyâ€™s hold on power.
Officials at Xinhua and Tianjin Foreign Studies University did not return calls seeking comment, making it impossible to confirm details of the talk, but many of the points Mr. Xia made are borne out in Xinhuaâ€™s coverage of the events he discussed.
Although it does not mention the staging of the landing for the cameras, Mr. Yangâ€™s autobiography, published this year, describes the injuries he suffered during the flight, including the cut to his lip caused by a microphone. He also says that the pressure from the infrasound resonance during takeoff was excruciating.
â€œAll of my organs seemed to break into pieces,â€� he wrote.
Mr. Xiaâ€™s journalism lecture, accompanied by a PowerPoint demonstration, included other examples of Xinhuaâ€™s handiwork, most notably coverage of ethnic rioting in the far west of China last summer that left nearly 200 people dead.
According to the transcript, Mr. Xia explained how Xinhua concealed the true horror of the unrest, during which the victims were mostly Han Chinese, for fear that it would set off violence beyond Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. Uighur rioters burned bus passengers alive, he told the class, and they raped women and decapitated children.
â€œUnder those circumstances, it would have exacerbated ethnic conflicts if more photos were released,â€� he said.
But Xinhua also has another purpose â€” intelligence gathering â€” and two days later the agencyâ€™s reporters sprang into action, leaving a government-organized media tour to sneak into a hospital to photograph the bodies of those slain during a wave of bloodletting by Han Chinese after the initial burst of unrest. Those deaths, he told the class, were reported to Beijing but did not make it into official news reports.
It was after receiving such unadulterated â€œinternal reference news,â€� he said, that President Hu Jintao flew home early from a meeting to deal with the crisis.
Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who often lays bare details of elements of Beijingâ€™s propaganda machine on the Web site China Digital Times, said the seeming frankness of Mr. Xiaâ€™s words reflected how unapologetic Xinhua was in its mission and its methods.
â€œHeâ€™s basically telling these students that journalism in China is a big show, itâ€™s fabricated, but in the end itâ€™s all justified for the higher purpose of stability,â€� Mr. Xiao said.
The practice of massaging the message has become more nuanced since the days when disfavored leaders were airbrushed out of group photos or details of a disaster â€” like the extent of the damage caused by the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan that claimed a quarter-million lives â€” could simply be kept from the public.
These days, Xinhua and the Communist Partyâ€™s propaganda department to which it reports have become far more sophisticated, but the challenges they face have also become more daunting in the Internet age. Although government censors still require Chinaâ€™s main news portals to carry Xinhua dispatches on delicate matters like street protests or official corruption, censorship is de facto far less comprehensive online than in traditional media.
Postings about Mr. Xiaâ€™s journalism lecture were quickly deleted, for instance, but new transcripts kept appearing. By late Thursday, at least 50 accounts came up in a Google search.
For Mr. Xiao, the fact that the original posting had appeared at all was encouraging and suggested that some Chinese journalism students were still idealistic.
â€œPerhaps it shows that at least one of these young students was shocked by what he heard,â€� he said.
Li Bibo and Zhang Jing contributed research.