The struggle for democracy against tyranny is not the focus of China's news coverage of Egypt's turmoil. Instead, much of the state-run media is devoting itself to the story of how the Chinese government arranged for eight flights last week to take home 1,848 stranded citizens. One returning traveler, upon receiving a bouquet of flowers in the Beijing airport, declared, "Thank the motherland!" according to a Xinhua story.
The stranded-tourists story certainly jibes with traditional coverage of the Chinese New Year festival, the time when some 230 million Chinese have to make their way home to celebrate the holidays with their families. And as scenes of chaos and violence emerge from Cairo, the image of a safe, caring China is precisely the soothing message the government wants to send to its citizens. China, after all, has had its share of democracy uprisings, most notably the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989 in which hundreds were killed in the crackdown by the People's Liberation Army. Those protests had begun during a time of political upheaval in far-off Eastern Europe, and Chinese authorities remain wary of events abroad influencing politics at home.
The state-controlled media's coverage of the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-05 emphasized the tension and uncertainty of those movements, a pattern that continues in the official reporting on uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. On Feb. 4, after government backers clashed with protesters in Cairo, Xinhua reported that the presence of opposing protest groups was "causing grave conflicts." On Sunday, the cover image of the Beijing Times was a huge fireball that erupted at a terminal on the Sinai Peninsula. The story emphasized early reports that the blast was caused by sabotage. "When you read most Western news sources, there's an emphasis on the unhappiness of the people, corruption of the government, the political paralysis in Egypt causing people not to have an outlet," says Jeremy Goldkorn, founder and editor of Danwei.org, a website about media and the Internet in China. "In China, it's much more that there are people demonstrating against government, chaos on streets, the banks are shut down, the army is on street."
While official Chinese accounts do mention that Egyptian demonstrators complain about corruption and inflation, they generally give little depth. For instance, the killing of Alexandria businessman Khaled Said, who was allegedly beaten to death at the hands of Egyptian police last year and has become an online rallying call for antigovernment demonstrators, has been scarcely mentioned in China. That's likely because it would be a reminder of China's own recent cases of suspicious deaths in police custody, notes Goldkorn.
On microblogging sites like Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese Twitter clone, searches for the Chinese name of Egypt are blocked and turn up a message that states, "Due to relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search returns cannot be shown." But messages containing the characters for Egypt can still be posted, and a few Sina Weibo users have been actively relaying developments from the country. Users can also still turn up results by searching the word Egypt in English. One widely relayed image shows a woman carrying a protest sign that reads, "Who's afraid of Twitter?" The sign not only refers to Egypt's blocking of the microblogging site in late January, but also to China's blocking Twitter in 2009.
But such implied comparisons between events in the two countries have been rare in China. That's due in part to censorship of coverage of the uprising. But average Chinese are also disinclined to think of Egypt as a peer, says Goldkorn. "People-power movements do worry the government, and in 1989 China was influenced by things going on elsewhere," he says. "At the same time, it's not causing absolute panic because Egypt is so different. The average Chinese perception of the Middle East is not a place people want to compare China to." And should they feel differently, they just have to glance at a newspaper or television for an image of a worried Chinese traveler returning from Cairo. It's a reminder that Egypt is a long way from home.