POSTED: 4:33 a.m. HST, Feb 2, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 4:57 a.m. HST, Feb 2, 2011
BEIJING — The protests in Egypt are about free elections and overthrowing a longtime dictator? Not according to China's state media, which is painting them as the kind of chaos that comes with Western-style democracy.
The recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia are no doubt giving pause to many authoritarian regimes around the world, but nowhere else appears to be as determined to control the message as China.
Newspapers can only publish accounts of the protests from the official Xinhua News Service, a policy often invoked on stories the government considers sensitive. Censors have blocked the ability to search the term "Egypt" on microblogging sites, and user comments that draw parallels to China have been deleted from Internet forums.
While there is little chance the protests could spark demonstrations in China, the extent to which the long-ruling Communist Party is censoring the story underscores how wary it is of any potential source of unrest that might threaten its hold on power.
"Of course, the government doesn't want to see more comments on (the protests), because stability is what they want," said Zhan Jian, a professor with the Media Department at the China Youth University for Political Sciences.
Elsewhere, authoritarian leaders from Madagascar to Iran have put their own spin on the Egyptian and Tunisian protests to justify their staying in power.
In some countries, including Saudi Arabia, Equatorial Guinea and North Korea, the media strategy seems to be to ignore the protests, with little or no coverage. Others have used the media to reinforce their message.
State-controlled television in the Ivory Coast has shown looting in Tunisia, explaining that is the cost of the country's leader stepping down. The unstated context: the Ivorian president is refusing to leave office two months after losing an election.
In Zimbabwe, media loyal to longtime President Robert Mugabe have portrayed the protests as anti-imperialist, an uprising against Egypt's leader because he is close to the U.S. "This is exactly what happens when sovereign governments sup with the devil," the state-run Daily Mail said.
But Zimbabweans can still cluster around TVs in sports clubs and bars, which have been switched from the usual sports programs to blanket coverage of the protests on Al-Jazeera and other satellite news channels.
Not so in China, where CNN and BBC are not widely available, and many are getting only the government version of events.
Those accounts have focused on the chaos and ignored protester complaints about autocracy and corruption, both sensitive topics in China. The reports have also highlighted the government's dispatching several chartered planes to rescue hundreds of stranded Chinese.
Online, searching for the term "Egypt" on microblogging sites, which draw millions of users, brings up the message: "According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results are not shown."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei gave the government's routine denial of online censorship Tuesday, saying: "China's Internet is open."
But Twitter and Facebook are blocked in China, and sensitive topics are regularly scrubbed from websites by the country's extensive Internet monitoring system, known as the Great Firewall.
China's attempts to restrict debate and sanitize reports echo its handling of earlier mass protests, said Jeremy Goldkorn, who runs Danwei.org, a website that tracks the media and Internet in China.
"It's almost the same reaction as when there were the color revolutions in Eastern Europe," he said. "The aim of it is to discourage people from making parallels with China and ... from seeing this as part of a global people power movement."
An editorial in the Global Times, a state-run newspaper, said such uprisings won't bring true democracy.
"As a general concept, democracy has been accepted by most people. But when it comes to political systems, the Western model is only one of a few options. It takes time and effort to apply democracy to different countries, and to do so without the turmoil of revolution," the paper said Sunday.
Two days later, the same publication took a swipe at the United States for backing authoritarian governments in order to uphold its interests in the Middle East, saying that "contradicts their so-called democratic politics."
China's message to its own people is clear, Goldkorn said.
"The Chinese government's take is that chaos is harmful for a developing country: 'Look what happens when people go in the streets,'" he said. "The Global Times frames everything as 'This is the danger of Western-style democracy.'"
Associated Press writers Lova Soarabary in Antananarivo, Madagascar; Rukmini Callimachi in Abidjan, Ivory Coast; and Angus Shaw in Harare, Zimbabwe, contributed to this report.