Chinese Spin on Olympics Protests

When pro-Tibet activists disrupted the Olympic torch relay in London, television viewers in China might be forgiven for thinking everything was going well in the British capital thousands of miles away. The London relay was not broadcast live on Chinese TV and the widely watched evening newscast did not mention the protests that night.

Those who had access to CNN International and BBC World Service — mainly foreigners staying in select hotels and residential compounds and a growing number of Chinese homes equipped with satellite dishes — got their first indication of the protests when their cable TV signals were interrupted several times during the broadcast, particularly when the activists got in the way of the torch-bearer.

Perhaps it was because it happened on a Sunday evening in China when people, including officials, were enjoying a slow weekend. At any event, the state of blissful ignorance for ordinary Chinese viewers lasted for about seven hours.

The first indication of official anger finally came in a dispatch from the official Xinhua news agency after midnight.

A report described how London police foiled an attempt to grab the Olympic torch and a statement from a Beijing Olympic official strongly criticized the activists for attempting to "sabotage" the Olympic torch relay and "defying" the Olympic spirit.

The stage was now set for explaining the protests to the Chinese public.

The Monday editions of Chinese newspapers all carried the same Xinhua report and the statement from the Beijing Olympic official, although these items were downplayed in comparison to longer reports about the Olympic torch's "warm reception in cold London," as the China Daily put it in its headline.

State TV newscasts on Monday began to show the video of the pro-Tibet protests in London, using the same video distributed by international news agencies but with a Chinese spin.

Chinese viewers saw what other international viewers saw the night before: an activist trying to grab the torch from a young female torch-bearer, another activist being subdued by British police after he tried to put out the torch's flame with a fire extinguisher, and other activists being pinned down by the police after they tried to approach the torch-bearer.

"A small number of 'pro-Tibet independence activists' tried to sabotage the torch relay in London," the voiceover said on state TV, "but many spectators voiced disapproval of these attempts to mix politics with sports."

These disruptive acts "were no deterrent to thousands of Londoners, and a large number of Chinese working and studying here, who packed the streets and cheered the torch on its way around the city," another state media report said.

By the time of Monday's early evening newscast in China, the Olympic torch relay in Paris had already started and the international cable news channels were reporting the protests live from the French capital.

But Chinese TV did not carry the live broadcast and the evening newscast led with a report on new government incentives for Chinese farmers. In the middle of the 30-minute newscast came the report from Paris, about the arrival of the Olympic flame the night before and no mention of the brewing protests around the city.

This time, Chinese authorities displayed a quicker reaction time. Before midnight, state TV newscasts were carrying reports about the protests in Paris, blaming these on "a small number of pro-Tibet independence activists" who once more tried to "sabotage the Olympic torch's journey of peace and harmony."

Chinese TV may not yet be ready for live and timely news reports on sensitive issues, but it now seems prepared to report on pro-Tibet protests and other anti-China demonstrations during this global Olympic torch relay — with a dose of its own spin.