The Strange Case of the Disappearing News Story

Richard Spencer, the China correspondent for the Telegraph, reflects on the dilemma faced by journalists covering Chinese government claims of attempted terrorist attacks:

While a few details leaked out from police about the “incident” on board an airliner from Urumqi to Beijing on Friday, they were hardly sufficient on their own to justify claims by politicians that it represented a clear attempt to hijack and crash the plane – a mass murder suicide attack, as it would have had to have been.

Nor was there any reason why it took two days to be reported.

As for the claim, also by a politician, that a terrorist cell broken up by police in Urumqi in January was targeting the Olympics, no evidence at all was adduced to support this.

It seems only right to inject a certain amount of scepticism, but how much?

Spencer goes on to say that mentions of the Urumqi raid and its ties to the Olympics have subsequently disappeared from the Chinese press and Internet news sites. His reporting on the incidents is here. See also the Washington Post’s reporting here. Time Magazine published a report, “China’s Curious Olympic Terror Threat,” which summarizes the doubts about both supposed terrorist attempts expressed by China watchers:

The news however has been met with considerable skepticism outside China, particularly since details of the incident remain confusingly murky…

Some observers also wondered at the timing of the announcement — coming as it did smack in the middle of the annual session of the NPC, when media attention is focused on the capital. “This is exactly the kind of thing that happens around the time of the National People’s Congress,” says Russell Leigh Moses of the China Center in Beijing. “Cadres who don’t necessarily get noticed a lot normally want to be seen as publicly carrying out the orders of the central government.”

Indeed, if there is anything that will get the attention of the central government, it is the threat of terrorism.

ABCNews has also posted an article titled “Terrorism and Beijing Olympics,” while Australia’s ABC News reports on the details about the plane incident that have been reported so far in the Chinese media:

According to Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, the plan to crash a passenger jet bound for Beijing was uncovered because of petrol smells.

The newspaper has reported that a stewardess smelt the fumes and found an 18 or 19-year-old Uighur woman trying to light a petrol bomb.

The report says she was found in the toilet and was prevented from lighting the device by cabin crew.

Read also “And So It Begins…” from The Opposite End of China blog, which, like Richard Spencer, expresses skepticism at the government’s claims.

March 10, 2008 12:37 PM
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Categories: Politics