From Headline News to Banned Search Topic—China’s Take on Occupy Wall Street

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Deomonstrators chant during a demonstration at the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011, in New York. (John Minchillo / AP)

China’s state-controlled media seem to enjoy giving a good lecture—particularly when the target is a meddlesome Western government that gives its own sermons on China’s human rights record. So when the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests laid bare American disaffection with the country’s imbalanced financial system, China’s official press blasted U.S. reporters for failing to cover the movement adequately. On Oct. 14, the Xinhua News Agency, Beijing’s mouthpiece, published an English-language opinion piece:

 What strikes us as odd is that the muckraking-crazy US media seem to have lost their sensitive news nose amid the spreading protests descending on their own soil. Mainstream American media of [sic] either turn a completely blind eye or try to play down the mass unrest storming their own streets.

This is just in a violent contrast with their eagerness to hype up the mass events of such kind, of course, if they all occurred in other countries. The rarely mute and subdued practice of the US mainstream media is also in departure with tenets of their oft-sung “free media.” They even show some reluctance to go figure in covering the Wall Street protests which a new poll shows that most Americans sympathize with. Some have even gone so far as to insult people taking to the streets as “idiots.”

US media have all alone favorably advertised their role: monitor of the government and care-taker of the society. But this time, they have never delivered valuable surveys and interrogations nor news-worthy stories. Instead, they choose to argue for the doings of Wall Street and Washington.

The eruption of the public protests, which stemmed from the trouble-laden Wall Street and has thus far shown no signs of stopping, has laid bare malpractices of the US government and ailments of its political and economic systems. Also, the structural imbalance and social conflicts inbuilt and deep-rooted in the US social fabric have come to light massively and extensively.

After weeks of surprisingly comprehensive OWS coverage, though, it’s now the Chinese media who are clamming up. On Oct. 23, Xinhua did run an article from Tehran reporting that Iranian students were marching in solidarity with the Wall Street ralliers. (The article went on to note that the Iranians also burned the American flag and chanted “Down with the United States” and “Down with Capitalism.”)

But, overall, Chinese news reports about the American protest movement have declined drastically in recent days, perhaps for fear that the American movement could trigger unwelcome thoughts about the financial inequities within China itself. In a country paranoid about social unrest, the catalyzing potential of OWS—similar protests have spread across the world, from London to Melbourne—must surely be discomfiting China’s leaders.

China Digital Times, a news website run out of the University of California at Berkeley, did a test of blocked searchwords on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, and found that nearly all Chinese provincial capitals preceded by the word “occupy” were banned. So, for example, netizens would be stopped from searching “Occupy Hohhot” (the capital of Inner Mongolia) or “Occupy Shijiazhuang” (the capital of Hebei). Naturally, the broader search “Occupy China” was also taboo. So far, OWS has only spawned one real copycat protest in China, a staid affair in Zhengzhou, central China, in which elderly Communist Party members expressed disgust with the excesses of U.S. capitalism. But even this, apparently, was too much. News about the Zhengzhou rally was kept from the official Chinese press.

Media cycles in China often follow predictable patterns. First a news topic is allowed, even encouraged as a way to teach the public a valuable lesson. But as worries mount over the destabilizing effect of bad news—be it a product-safety scandal or an instance of local corruption—censors step in and a once well-covered subject disappears from the papers. Savvy Chinese media consumers know how to read between the lines. But even China-watchers may have been taken aback by a development in China’s financial capital. Shanghaiist, an irreverent independent blog, reported that police in Shanghai had visited bars frequented by expatriates to ask puzzled foreigners whether they were somehow involved with the OWS movement an ocean away. It’s unclear what the cops planned to had they happened to corner a Wall Street rally instigator at a Shanghai nightspot. But one thing’s quite likely: the incident wouldn’t have been given much play in the now spooked state-controlled media.