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How news breaks in China

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James Reynolds | 10:54 UK time, Thursday, 26 February 2009

A bit more information on Wednesday's report of three people setting themselves on fire in downtown Beijing. I want to take you through the early stages of this story - so as to give you an idea of how a breaking story unfolds in China ...

At 4.31pm, the official Xinhua news agency publishes a news flash on its English-language wire service : "Three men set themselves on fire in downtown Beijing."

In practical terms, Xinhua operates as the Chinese government's press office (the official government chart lists Xinhua as an "office directly under the State Council.") All foreign journalists in China need to keep an eye on what Xinhua reports - it's often the only way we'll find out what the Communist Party wants us to know.

China has often been criticised for hiding negative or inconvenient news (in January, for example, Chinese websites censored references to Communism in Chinese transcripts of President Barack Obama's inaugural address).

But in this case, Xinhua itself breaks the news of a dramatic demonstration in China's capital.

Xinhua's English language flash is immediately picked up by international news agencies. This alerts a wider audience to the story. But we still don't know exactly where the incident happened.

At 4.44pm, Xinhua in English publishes a short update, including information from an unnamed government spokesman, "The three sat in a vehicle and ignited the fire at 3 pm at the crossing of the Wangfujing and Chang'an avenues."

Now we know where it happened - at a busy intersection just a few minutes walk from Tiananmen Square. My colleague heads straight there. When she arrives, she finds that everything has already been cleared away. Police officers wandering by do not get in her way. The only thing that makes the street unusual is a collection of foreign journalists walking about looking for people to talk to.

Eyewitnesses are reluctant to speak. But one street vendor agrees to talk, so long as we don't use her name, "The three were in a small van with flags fixed to its roof," she says, "They set fire to themselves, but within a very short time, the fire was put out."

The woman's husband says that the people in the car looked like Uighur Muslims from the Xinjiang region of western China - one of the most sensitive areas in the country. Witnesses who speak to other journalists say that the car had number plates from Xinjiang and that the three people inside were Uighur Muslims.

Mobile picture of fireLater on, we get hold of this photo, taken from someone's mobile phone shortly after the fire was put out.

At 5.55pm, Xinhua in English publishes a further wire service update, saying that two of the men were taken away by the police, the other in an ambulance. "The motive of the self-immolation and the men's identities were not available at the moment."

By the early evening, then, we've been able to build up a reasonable picture of what happened.

But it's important to point out an unusual fact that you may already have noticed. All of the official updates so far have come from Xinhua's English-language wire service - not its Chinese-language wire service (it's a bit like the Press Association in the UK deciding to break news of a demonstration in the middle of London in French, but not in English.)

So, up to this point, most people who only speak Chinese - and who rely on the government for their news - will probably be unaware that anything unusual has happened in Beijing (during this time, though, Chinese speakers will have been able to find translations of the English-language reports on the Internet.)

Finally, at 6.55pm, Xinhua in Chinese publishes its first wire service report on the subject. It says that the police went to check a suspicious looking vehicle. "When police came up to make a check, the vehicle suddenly caught fire inside" (our translation). Xinhua also reports that the three people had come to Beijing to make a complaint.

What should we make of the fact that Xinhua waited for more than two hours before breaking the news in Chinese on its wire service ?

I put this question to a Chinese journalist who works for a government-sponsored publication. The journalist has asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from his employers. The journalist says that Chinese media organisations have to take much greater care when they publish stories in Chinese, because the authorities are worried about the danger of social unrest. Breaking a story in English, the journalist says, doesn't carry the same risks, and it even helps China to show the (English-speaking) world that it is taking steps towards greater press freedom.

The journalist also reports that media organisations in China have specifically been ordered not to use the words "Muslim" and "Xinjiang" when reporting on this story.

And, to my knowledge as I write this post, pictures taken at the scene have not been published widely.


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