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Urumqi unrest: China's savvier media strategy

Taking a cue from Western PR tactics, Beijing moved away from trying to block coverage altogether – and was benefited by doing so.

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The initial assumption among most Western observers was that most of the dead must have been Uighur demonstrators, cut down by police gunfire. Although the authorities have not given an ethnic breakdown of the victims, reporters interviewing eyewitnesses began to suspect that in fact the majority of the dead may well have been Han Chinese, killed by Uighur rioters.

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"We are certainly seeing a more varied and nuanced set of reports out of Xinjiang than we saw about Tibet," says Ms. Mackinnon.

Blocking search terms on the Web

Chinese news consumers, meanwhile, both on the Web and at the newsstands, were treated to a steady and unvaried drumbeat of official reports blaming the violence on Uighur exiles, with nary a mention of the economic and social grievances that have been fueling Uighur discontent for years.

Internet portals were ordered by the propaganda department to fix their search engines so that searches for phrases such as "Xinjiang Uighur dogs riot" or "Politburo silence" or "Beijing, assimilation policy" would yield no results, according to a "blacklist" leaked by a search engine technician.

Bulletin boards – often the site of lively debate on the Chinese Internet but which are required to censor their content – either deleted all posts related to Xinjiang or allowed through only those ones conforming to government policy. The only video visible was from official TV stations. Twitter and YouTube were blocked.

The approach appeared to mark a further step in Beijing's efforts to manage the news more subtly, taking a page from the Western public relations playbook and getting ahead of the news so as to spin it, rather than impose a total blackout.

Internet censorship ensured that there was virtually no independent commentary or reporting of the news, but blanket coverage in official sources (all that Internet portals were allowed to carry), such as the state news agency Xinhua and the state-run China Central Television, gave average Chinese citizen enough news to satisfy them.

Why one Chinese editor disavowed the Wall Street Journal

Foreign reporters were allowed to travel around Urumqi and interview local people, which gave rise to a number of stories sympathetic to Han victims of Sunday's riot, and those articles that raised questions about the official account came in for heavy criticism in the official Chinese press.

"As of today I will no longer be a reader of the Wall Street Journal," senior editor Ding Gang wrote Friday in the "Global Times," a tabloid belonging to the ruling Communist party. "In reporting the Xinjiang riot, the paper stood publicly at the side of the terrorists and became their representative," he charged.

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