The brawl between Han Chinese and Uighurs in southern China was scarcely covered by state media, but accounts and photos spread quickly via the Internet and became a spark that helped ignite deadly riots thousands of miles away in the Uighur homeland.
Even in tightly controlled China, relatively unfettered commentaries and images circulating on Web sites helped stir up tensions and rally people to join an initially peaceful protest in the Xinjiang region that spiraled into violence Sunday, leaving more than 150 people dead.
In China, as in Iran and other hotspots, the Internet, social networking and micro-blogging are playing a central role in mobilizing people power — and becoming contested ground as governments fight back.
In the Internet age, events in “places like Xinjiang or Tibet, which were always considered very remote,” can suddenly become close and immediate for people around the world, said Xiao Qiang, director of the Berkeley China Internet Project at the University of California-Berkeley.
Since the outburst in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, the Chinese government has blocked Twitter and Facebook, scrubbed news sites, unplugged the Internet entirely in some places and slowed it and cell phone service to a crawl in others to stifle reports about the violence — and get its own message out that authorities are in control.
… Such censorship does not quiet unrest for long, but instead ends up giving rumors more credence than they deserve, said Berkeley’s Xiao.
“The more you try to police the Internet, and delete information, the more those rumors become some kind of truth and people just pick what they want to believe,” said Xiao. “That’s the negative direct consequences of such tight information control.”