Beijing – He lies on the ground, one hand on his belly, the other flung out behind his head clutching a camera. A soldier in baggy khaki and flip flops points a gun at his prone body. Panicked civilians flee in the background, chased by more soldiers and baton-wielding police. These are the last moments of Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai’s life; slain covering Myanmar’s mass pro-democracy protests in Yangon last week. (See Myanmar’s blogs of bloodshed , Asia Times Online, September 29.)

While Japanese TV showed shocking video footage of the mortally wounded Nagai and the international press published grainy photos of his body on the rain-damp street, China’s media all but shunned the images.

Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis News was one of the few mainland papers that printed photos of a dying Nagai. But even the paper, one of China’s boldest publications, did not dare show the whole photo. The image carried on their website was carefully cropped to cut out the armed soldier. The fleeing protesters had been reduced to a couple of sarong-clad legs. Strange editing indeed – as it removes all context from the image; the fact Nagai died covering a bloody crackdown of a civilian protest by armed police and troops.

And while a small number of papers did print the uncropped photo – the Beijing Times, for example, published both versions – the Nanfang Daily’s treatment reflects the country’s overall timid media response to the momentous events that unfolded on its doorstep last week.

Before the violence escalated on September 27, Chinese media coverage of Myanmar’s unrest had been low key. Most reports were buried inside newspapers, despite the fact these protests attracted tens of thousands of people and were the biggest demonstrations in the neighboring country for 20 years. The bulk of coverage was and still is by Xinhua, one of the few news agencies with a Yangon bureau. On September 25 it reported the protests saying demonstrators carried banners calling for “an improvement to people’s livelihoods, the release of prisoners and national reconciliation”, but made no mention of their demands for democratic reform.

Most reports carried the bare bones of what was going on, ignored the protesters, instead quoting Myanmar government sources or official media. Initially they contradicted reports of a harsh crackdown. “Officials have consistently exercised restraint in handling these demonstrations and have not employed force to disperse the demonstrators,” the Beijing Youth Daily said on September 27. TV news more or less ignored the protests.

After the violence kicked off and websites were flooded with photos and video footage of the brutal crackdown, Chinese media could no longer ignore the story. While they reported the official death toll, international concern and calls for restraint they largely continued to ignore or brush over the demonstrators’ demands, giving more prominence to the junta’s official line.

While Western media were quoting Yangon consular sources on possibly much higher death tolls and human rights organizations on the alleged arrest of thousands of monks and protesters, the English-language China Daily decided instead to run a story quoting only Myanmar Foreign Minister U Nyan Win, blaming the crackdown on “political opportunists” helped by some “powerful countries”.

That theory, that it was villainous forces from outside Myanmar that engineered the demonstrations, coupled with allegations that Western media had been exaggerating the situation, started to crop up in the Chinese press.

The Global Times – a tabloid published by the People’s Daily group – started the ball rolling when it sent its reporter to Yangon on September 28. In his article, translated into English on a Beijing-based blog, Ren Jianmin threw into question all aspects of Western reports on Myanmar from whether the country was denying journalists visas – he got in without a problem – to whether there was any violent crackdown at all. The streets were quiet and peaceful, he said, yet he arrived at night during a curfew.

“There has still been no believable evidence that the reports of the new ‘bloody conflict’ by the Western media are true,” he wrote, although he did not bother to quote protesters, locals or overseas consular staff apart from his driver. He did, however, refer to the state-controlled The New Light of Myanmar which claimed: “The Voice of America and the BBC have told huge lies.” As one American Beijing-based writer who focuses on Chinese media said: “While the piece does make some good points about international coverage, those points could easily have been made from [their bureau in] Beijing.”

Even so, Global Times is one of the few Chinese media that has been publishing more than the dry official speak from Xinhua, points out David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project. “Global Times … has had a reporter filing stories regularly from Thailand, much of it reporting statements from ‘foreign’ media – the Singapore Straits Times, Thai papers, Western papers. [It has also] … paid particular attention to statements in the West saying China should play a bigger role in resolving the situation.”

But, it has also found academics to quote who throw doubt on the West’s motives in choosing now to interfere in Myanmar affairs. “Burma’s [Myanmar’s] military junta has been in government for a number of decades and lately America and Europe have only been paying attention to Burma because they are interested in its resources,” the Yangon reporter wrote.

A Chinese government source who analyzes international news media said the issue was too sensitive in China to give it much prominence. “We are very close to the government in Myanmar,” he said. “Media have to be careful how they report the situation. They don’t want to cause problems between the two countries.”

“This is not a big surprise,” said Bandurski. “Burma is not just a trade partner but a political ally and neighbor of China and China has not really shared with the outside world what its relationship with Burma really is. Some have said Burma is a puppet regime [of China] and some have said it’s effectively a province of China.

“China is just saying it doesn’t want to mess with their internal affairs. That’s just the party line, and when you have a party line like that the media would really be pushing it to have anything more complex or deeper, different coverage.”

Bandurski adds that if this was a domestic issue it might, ironically, prompt more media debate. “It’s also an issue of foreign policy, an area of greater sensitivity. If this was something domestic, like a draft law or some other social issue then it’s not so sensitive but since it’s foreign policy it falls into that same category as other off-limits subjects such as religious movements, superstition, the Falungong.”

Perhaps more important for Beijing, though, is that the news of the protests and their pro-democracy content hits a bit too close to home. The demonstrations bring back memories of China’s own bloody crackdown of democracy protests in June 1989 and the images of marching monks may prompt fears their own disgruntled monks in Tibet might also be inspired to make a bid for freedom. At the best of times, the media would be wary, but with the upcoming October 15 Party Congress, editors will be even more cautious.

Dinah Gardner is a freelance journalist based in Beijing.