China and Zimbabwe restricts reports on Egypt protests

BEIJING — The protests in Egypt are about free elections and overthrowing a longtime dictator? Not according to China's state media, which is painting them as the kind of chaos that comes with Western-style democracy.

The recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia are no doubt giving pause to many authoritarian regimes around the world, but nowhere else appears to be as determined to control the message as China.

Newspapers can only publish accounts of the protests from the official Xinhua News Service, a policy often invoked on stories the government considers sensitive. Censors have blocked the ability to search the term "Egypt" on microblogging sites, and user comments that draw parallels to China have been deleted from Internet forums.

While there is little chance the protests could spark demonstrations in China, the extent to which the long-ruling Communist Party is censoring the story underscores how wary it is of any potential source of unrest that might threaten its hold on power.

"Of course, the government doesn’t want to see more comments on (the protests), because stability is what they want," said Zhan Jian, a professor with the Media Department at the China Youth University for Political Sciences.

Elsewhere, authoritarian leaders from Madagascar to Iran have put their own spin on the Egyptian and Tunisian protests to justify their staying in power. Some have also used the media to reinforce their message.

State-controlled television in the Ivory Coast has shown looting in Tunisia, explaining that is the cost of the country’s leader stepping down. The unstated context: the Ivorian president is refusing to leave office two months after losing an election.

In Zimbabwe, media loyal to longtime President Robert Mugabe have portrayed the protests as anti-imperialist, an uprising against Egypt’s leader because he is close to the U.S. "This is exactly what happens when sovereign governments sup with the devil," the state-run Daily Mail said.

But Zimbabweans can still cluster around TVs in sports clubs and bars, which have been switched from the usual sports programs to blanket coverage of the protests on Al-Jazeera and other satellite news channels.

Not so in China, where CNN and BBC are not widely available, and many are getting only the government version of events.

Those accounts have focused on the chaos and ignored protester complaints about autocracy and corruption, both sensitive topics in China. The reports have also highlighted the government’s dispatching several chartered planes to rescue hundreds of stranded Chinese.

Online, searching for the term "Egypt" on microblogging sites, which draw millions of users, brings up the message: "According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results are not shown."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei gave the government’s routine denial of online censorship Tuesday, saying: "China’s Internet is open."

But Twitter and Facebook are blocked in China, and sensitive topics are regularly scrubbed from websites by the country’s extensive Internet monitoring system, known as the Great Firewall.

China’s attempts to restrict debate and sanitize reports echo its handling of earlier mass protests, said Jeremy Goldkorn, who runs Danwei.org, a website that tracks the media and Internet in China.

"It’s almost the same reaction as when there were the color revolutions in Eastern Europe," he said. "The aim of it is to discourage people from making parallels with China and … from seeing this as part of a global people power movement."

An editorial in the Global Times, a state-run newspaper, said such uprisings won’t bring true democracy.

"As a general concept, democracy has been accepted by most people. But when it comes to political systems, the Western model is only one of a few options. It takes time and effort to apply democracy to different countries, and to do so without the turmoil of revolution," the paper said Sunday.

Two days later, the same publication took a swipe at the United States for backing authoritarian governments in order to uphold its interests in the Middle East, saying that "contradicts their so-called democratic politics."

China’s message to its own people is clear, Goldkorn said.

"The Chinese government’s take is that chaos is harmful for a developing country: ‘Look what happens when people go in the streets,’" he said. "The Global Times frames everything as ‘This is the danger of Western-style democracy.’"

Meanwhile Robert Mugabe’s former Information and Publicity Minister Jonathan Moyo has attacked Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s support for public uprisings against the Egyptian government and called it akin to "a baboon laughing at another’s forehead", a senior Zanu PF official said on Tuesday.

The rogue, motor-mouthed Tsholotsho North MP Jonathan Moyo said Tsvangirai’s expressed desire to see similar protests on Zimbabwe’s streets to force out President Robert Mugabe was a "pipe dream".

The MDC leader, Moyo claimed, is funded and supported by the same governments that have been propping up Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Cairo.

"It’s a case of one puppet laughing at another puppet and not seeing the irony," Moyo told a Zanu PF online news site on Tuesday. "He is claiming it will happen in his own country. If it does happen in Zimbabwe, surely the puppet would be the target."

Moyo said massive street protests as witnessed in Egypt since last week "will never happen on behalf of a puppet".

"Not in our lifetime, not ever," Moyo, a former Zanu PF spokesman, said. "But against a puppet and running dogs of imperialism, it is almost an assured reaction.

"The American and their western allies are nervous in that whole region, they have been responsible for that system, and they are the ones that have propped up those regimes from Egypt through Tunisia to Yemen.

"It is the Americans’ desire to have these puppet regimes throughout Africa, hence their support for Tsvangirai."

On Saturday, Tsvangirai told Fox News that oppression is resented and people are right to demand their freedom.

"To me when people take their rights and start demanding more rights, there is nothing wrong with that including in Zimbabwe. That was the whole purpose of our struggle for the last 10 years," he said, adding: "The aspect of incumbents leaving power to their children, dynasties, as we may call it, that is very resented by the people."

But his Zanu PF opponents say Tsvangirais is trying to prize power in Zimbabwe on the back of American support – and his fate would just be the same as the Egyptian experience.

"American created governments have no life," Moyo said. "If Tsvangirai wants to know an assured outcome of massive hand-holding by the Americans, it’s what’s happening in the Middle East.

"He likes talking about roadmaps, and he must look no further than Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia to see the roadmap for puppets."

Moyo claimed the American government and its allies were trying to "create an Egypt and Yemen in Zimbabwe" through their financial and political backing of Tsvangirai – recently confirmed in secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

Moyo added: "Look at Cuba, it’s anti-American but only 90 miles away. The Americans have failed to impose their puppets there because the Cuban regime is rooted in the people and the people are anti-West. They have resisted to be reduced to a puppet satellite state like Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen."

The United States gives Egypt close to US$1,7 billion a year in military aid, and even as pressure mounted for Mubarak – who has been president for 31 years — to step down on Tuesday, US Vice President Joe Biden urged him to stay put.

Biden described the unrest as an expression of "middle-class folks" looking for "a little more access and a little more opportunity."

Biden said Mubarak has been a U.S. "ally" on "a number of things," praising him for being "very responsible" in normalising Egypt’s relationship with Israel and aiding in Middle East peace talks. 

"I would not refer to him as a dictator," Biden said on PBS’ NewsHour.

Suggesting Mubarak’s regime would weather the storm, Biden nudged the longtime Egyptian president to respond to the protests, peacefully, by being "more responsive to some of the needs of the people out there."

"I hope Mubarak … is going to respond to some of the legitimate concerns that are being raised," he said.