Beijing – When two Tibetans were sentenced to death on Wednesday for setting fire to shops during last year’s protest riots in Lhasa, the Chinese authorities for some reason chose to tell the rest of the world before they told their own citizens.
The episode illustrates the peculiar way in which news travels in China, where the government controls the traditional media, but the Internet offers an alternative.
Bizarrely, the news first appeared Wednesday evening on the English-language service of the state-run Xinhua news agency. But nowhere was it to be found on the Chinese language service for another 24 hours.
That meant that, while the world knew, not a single paper in China ran a story Thursday about the first death sentences known to have been passed on Tibetans for last year’s riots, on individuals identified as Losang Gyaltse and Loyar – except the government-run “Tibetan Daily,” published in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital.
They put it in their hard-copy edition, but for some reason it was not findable on their website until Thursday afternoon. Only then did a handful of news portals elsewhere on the Chinese Web pick the story up.
Until then, the only way Chinese citizens could have heard about the death sentences was on the Chinese-language websites of foreign radio stations such as the BBC and VOA. To get onto those sites, you have to go around the “Great Firewall” by using a proxy server to evade government censors.
Curiously, the first mainland site to post the BBC’s story was “Anti-CNN,” a nationalist website that decries the alleged bias of the Western media, but does not appear to appreciate the irony that the only way they can find out what is really happening in their country is to read the Western media surreptitiously.
Equally curiously, the story on Xinhua’s English service and the story in the “Tibetan Daily” are almost identical, except that the Lhasa paper gives more details of the crimes with which the accused were charged.
Was this a Xinhua story that the agency simply did not distribute nationwide? Did one reporter in Lhasa feed the same story to Xinhua and to the “Tibetan Daily”?
Like so much else in Tibet, where foreign journalists and diplomats are barred, we will probably never know.