Why a nervous China aims to shield citizens from Egypt news

China has limited coverage of the Egypt protest to its Xinhua news service and warned last week that websites that did not censor comments about Egypt would be 'shut down by force.'

Carlos Barria/Reuters
Hu Yi Xin (l.) embraced her daughter Rong Xi as she arrived Tuesday from Egypt to the Pudon international airport in Shanghai. Most of China's heavily censored coverage of Egypt has focused on Chinese citizens unable to leave Egypt due to the unrest.

Like governments around the world, China’s rulers are watching the unrest in Egypt with bated breath – nervous about the outcome, but powerless to affect it.

China is worried about chaos, because that is bad for Egypt and for other countries,” says Yin Gang, a Middle East expert at the China Academy of Social Sciences. “China’s concern is the same as America’s … but China has very little influence in the Middle East.”

Beijing has been studiously neutral in the face of mass demonstrations in Cairo and other Egyptian cities calling for President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.

Asked on Tuesday for China’s views on the new Egyptian government that has promised economic and political reforms, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei would say only that “we hope that Egypt will return to stability and normal order as soon as possible.”

The Chinese authorities are even more concerned about preserving stability and normal order at home. Apparently fearing that Chinese citizens be inspired by Egyptian protesters, the government has issued strict orders limiting press coverage of the unrest.

“All media nationwide must use Xinhua’s reporting on the Egyptian riots,” read a directive issued last Friday, referring to the state run Xinhua news agency. “It is strictly forbidden to translate foreign media coverage,” the order said, warning that websites that did not censor comments about Egypt would be “shut down by force.”

“One major reason for the censorship is that Chinese officials do not know the direction of the protests,” says Russell Leigh Moses, a political analyst in Beijing. “Reporting depends almost entirely on direction from the leadership and uncertainty never produces consensus in Beijing.”

“You can see from the media that China is keeping a very low-key tone on this issue, and not giving it a lot of coverage,” says Prof. Yin. “That shows the government’s intentions.”

“They are nervous,” says Xiao Qiang, who monitors the Chinese Internet at the University of California at Berkeley. “They are more than usually tight, to ensure that only the Xinhua version is there.”

One Twitter-like microblog site did not return results for a search of “Egypt” on Tuesday, but otherwise the government order appeared to be only erratically imposed. The Hong Kong based Phoenix TV network, for example, which can be seen on the mainland but which is not subject to Beijing’s censorship, has been broadcasting live from Cairo without interference.

Almost all of the news reports on Internet news portals is coming from Xinhua, which provides straightforward and neutral news stories, often focusing on the plight of hundreds of Chinese citizens trapped at Cairo airport. But reader comments on those stories were not being deleted.

Many of those comments seemed directed as much at the political situation in China as at events in Egypt. “Don’t look down at ordinary people: history is written by them,” read one comment on the popular Netease portal. “Even though a struggle does some damage for a while, it can make the government cleaner and more transparent in the long run and push democratization,” suggested another.

Though China does not consider that it has any strategic interests in the Middle East to match US concerns, it does depend on the region for nearly half of its imported oil and is thus anxious that the political upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt should not spread to oil producing nations.

At the same time, China’s trade with Egypt has increased threefold over the past five years to reach $6.96 billion in 2010, making Egypt China’s second-largest trading partner in Africa and the Middle East, excluding its oil suppliers.

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