Eighteen months ago, when unrest broke out among Tibetans, the government banned foreign reporters from a huge swath of Tibetan-inhabited western China. Denied the chance to offer firsthand accounts of events, most Western media relied heavily on exile Tibetan sources.
The result was an unmitigated international public relations disaster for Beijing, although at home few Chinese questioned the official version that the Dalai Lama had instigated the trouble that left 18 ethnic Han and Hui Chinese dead.
Last Monday, in contrast, after a demonstration by Uighur protesters had spun out of control, the government invited foreign journalists to visit Urumqi to report for themselves on what had happened. A press center was put at their disposal, and tours of the violence-stricken quarters of the city were provided.
The initial assumption among most Western observers was that most of the dead must have been Uighur demonstrators, cut down by police gunfire. Although the authorities have not given an ethnic breakdown of the victims, reporters interviewing eyewitnesses began to suspect that in fact the majority of the dead may well have been Han Chinese, killed by Uighur rioters.
"We are certainly seeing a more varied and nuanced set of reports out of Xinjiang than we saw about Tibet," says Ms. Mackinnon.
Blocking search terms on the Web
Chinese news consumers, meanwhile, both on the Web and at the newsstands, were treated to a steady and unvaried drumbeat of official reports blaming the violence on Uighur exiles, with nary a mention of the economic and social grievances that have been fueling Uighur discontent for years.
Internet portals were ordered by the propaganda department to fix their search engines so that searches for phrases such as "Xinjiang Uighur dogs riot" or "Politburo silence" or "Beijing, assimilation policy" would yield no results, according to a "blacklist" leaked by a search engine technician.