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Propaganda Blitz Unleashed : In China's Media, Official View Is the Only Message

June 13, 1989|DANIEL WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Day after day, hour after hour, Chinese government television shows waves of mostly youthful protesters attacking army trucks, tanks or armored cars.

The only dead seen in the broadcast videotapes have been three charred corpses identified as soldiers. Every one of the injured shown so far has been a military man recovering in the hospital.

In all the broadcasts, no shot fired by troops has been heard on the sound tracks, although witnesses heard and saw plenty of shooting June 4, when soldiers moved in force into the center of Beijing.

China's media are in the midst of a propaganda campaign of a kind not experienced here for more than a decade--and perhaps not matched since the 1950s campaign against what the government called rightist critics.

Television especially is saturated with stories supporting the government version of events two weekends ago, when the army stormed into downtown Beijing and used live ammunition to roust pro-democracy demonstrators from Tian An Men Square. It has also emphasized the protesters' "criminal" nature with long reports on arrests of "thugs" throughout the country.

The campaign is a textbook example of the official view here of mass communication more as a tool of unification and pacification than as an approach to the truth.

In this time of crisis, persuasion appears to be secondary to another goal: letting everyone know what it is permissible to think. As a farmer in Tailing, a village outside Beijing, told a reporter: "Television says that the attacks were made by thugs. That is all I want to know."

That is not a general attitude, at least here in the capital. Interviews with Beijing residents over the past nine days indicate that the effects of the propaganda deluge are more unpredictable than the government might like.

One wild card is the role of the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corp., both of which beam news in the Mandarin dialect to China. Foreign radio has proven a formidable competitor to the official broadcasts. In random conversations, many citizens of the capital say they listen to one or both of the foreign outlets.

In the case of the Voice of America, China has launched a large-scale effort to discredit its broadcasts by accusing it of deliberate misreporting.

The People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, said Monday that the VOA could "hardly hide its excitement" over news of the protests at Tian An Men. It accused the radio of "spreading rumors," including exaggerated casualty tolls and stories about splits in the military.

"VOA spread too many rumors," the People's Daily said. "They played their part in helping counterrevolutionary revolt in Beijing. . . . It is time for the VOA to take a rest."

The government is also trying to head off the foreigners' practice of sending in news clippings and leaflets by telephone fax machine. In radio broadcasts, the authorities said that they have stationed police by fax machines in China to intercept the messages and that any printed material "containing distorted propaganda" must be turned over to Beijing's Public Security Bureau.

Intercepted Material

In another example of state control of all communication, Chinese authorities have intercepted unedited ABC News material that was being transmitted to the United States by satellite and used it to arrest a man who spoke to an American news crew shortly after the martial-law crackdown.

The intercepted videotape was broadcast on state-run television Saturday evening, showing a middle-aged man speaking vehemently about the killings of protesters. The man admitted under questioning by a foreign journalist that he had not seen the killings himself. He then attributed his information to the Voice of America and added inaccurately that the American broadcast had reported 20,000 deaths. The Saturday night broadcast concluded with a plea for citizens to turn in the "rumormonger" to authorities.

The man appeared again on the Sunday night news, this time in police custody.

Identified as Xiao Bin, 42, the man declared before police officials and a television camera: "I confess that I was guilty of making up rumors. If you call me a counterrevolutionary, I admit it."

A spokesman for ABC News in New York objected strenuously to the interception of its material and the use of it "for political purposes."

In response, U.S. television networks say they have begun to obscure the faces of dissidents interviewed here to prevent identification and retribution by authorities.

"We began to electronically disguise all people interviewed in Beijing on our Sunday evening news programs," an ABC spokesman said from New York. CBS started to "blank out" faces in interviews, and NBC said it is showing only silhouettes of those who feared reprisal.

Chinese have reacted to the propaganda onslaught in a variety of ways. Some simply dismiss the information--at least in the privacy of their homes.

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