The official news agency provides all coverage for print and TV, while censors closely monitor the Web.
By Peter Ford
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Beijing - When the Dalai Lama issued what he called "a personal appeal" to his "Chinese brothers and sisters" last week for an end to misunderstandings that have plagued Chinese-Tibetan relations, the spiritual leader's call went almost entirely unheard by its intended recipients.
Chinese newspapers, TV, and radio – all controlled by the government – ignored his lengthy message. And the few Chinese "Internauts" who found it on websites were uniformly hostile, to judge by comments they posted.
The vast majority of Chinese citizens, relying on state-run media for news and official views, appear to find no fault with their government's handling of recent Tibetan unrest, presented as an outbreak of murderous mob violence instigated by separatist plotters abroad.
"From start to finish, all the coverage of these incidents was led and managed by the Chinese government," says one communications scholar who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. "I assume they feel a big relief. It is regarded by a lot of people as a public relations success."
The government has ensured its control over Tibet-related information in the traditional media by the simple expedient of making sure that only news and commentary from Xinhua, the official news agency, has appeared in papers or on TV.
Not a single case has come to light of any Chinese newspaper using any other source over the last three weeks.
Editors who may have had doubts about Xinhua's veracity or balance appear to have kept silent. Southern Weekend, for example, an independent-minded weekly popular with intellectuals, has not published articles on Tibet since the unrest began three weeks ago.
"If they see only Xinhua articles and none others being published elsewhere, they will see that as a signal that they should not talk about it," says a former editor at Southern Weekend, who asked to remain anonymous.
"If they cannot write about it properly, they think it is better not to write," he adds.
The Internet is harder to control, though censors known here as "Net nannies" have been working overtime to keep awkward Western media reports and other information off the websites accessible to Chinese users.
The Dalai Lama's appeal, for example, was not easy to find in Beijing. A search on Baidu, China's largest search engine, for "Dalai Lama appeal Chinese" produced only one link, and that had been blocked by Internet supervisors.
Though a Google search found more sites, most of them were inaccessible to visitors from China behind "The Great Firewall," as the censorship barrier has been dubbed.
And on the few sites where the Tibetan leader's statement was readable, he did not appear to have touched many hearts with his plea to be believed when he says he seeks only autonomy for his homeland, not independence as the Chinese authorities insist.
"You are definitely a shameless politician, a gangster, a rascal," read one comment on powerapple.com, an entertainment website. "Nobody would believe this kind of nonsense," scoffed an Internaut named Yancong on cmule.com, a source of music and film downloads.
One doubter raised his voice, however, in the comments thread on cmule.com. "The majority of Chinese people have never really known Tibetans' lifestyle so they can only follow the central government's opinion," argued "Qdpan," who said he himself had lived near a Tibetan region. "People don't receive enough information so they are doomed to blindly follow."
Western reporting has leaked onto the Chinese Web through Chinese-language sites hosted abroad, e-mails from friends living in foreign countries, and translations of articles in US and European papers that have escaped censors' eyes.
Radically different in tone from the Chinese media, and occasionally inaccurate, these reports have sparked a wave of anti-Western resentment among Internet users here posting their opinions on sites such as anti-cnn.com; and the official media has offered detailed accounts of the phenomenon. "The government allows it to happen and makes clever use of it to manipulate it to fit its general policy," says the communications scholar. "They'll allow it to happen and see where it goes."
At the same time, she suggests, officials' show of support for the critics is self-defeating. "The unfair and unobjective reporting has been in the minority," she says. The government's "overreaction only shows their lack of confidence."
Against the tide of opinion flowing the government's way, a few voices have been raised. A group of liberal intellectuals issued a 12-point statement calling for an end to what they called "one-sided propaganda" and for negotiations with the Dalai Lama. Their declaration, widely reported abroad, got no further than a few internet sites inside China.
And some skeptics have expressed puzzlement over the government's policy.
"After reading domestic news these days, I still have the following questions," wrote A. Dai on his "Desert Sandstorm" blog.
"Why do Tibetans still go to protest in Lhasa" after Beijing has invested so much money in development projects? he wondered. "How could the Dalai Lama, regarded as worthless in China, win the Nobel Peace Prize?"
For now, such questions seem destined to go unanswered for Chinese news consumers. "On issues of high sensitivity, such as Taiwan or Tibet," says the scholar, "editors know they have to follow Xinhua guidelines."