China’s Olympian Challenge:
Can Beijing Deliver on its Promises?

Bob Dietz
Asia Program Coordinator
Committee to Protect Journalists

A special conference organized by the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1779 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036

Thursday, October 11, 2007

 



Thank you for this opportunity to speak today. It is good news for CPJ that others see the link between China’s hosting of the 2008 Games and its threat to foreign and local journalists in China.

Let me get right to the point: As of this morning, with less than one year to go before the 2008 Olympic Games, China is holding at least 29 reporters and editors behind bars because of their work. That number is down from 31 last year. Most are being held on vague security-related charges such as revealing state secrets or inciting subversion of state power. By using such catch-all accusations, China has the dubious honor of leading the world in the number of jailed journalists since 1999.

Despite this record, in 2001 the International Olympic Committee awarded the Games to China. The agreement between China and the IOC has not been made public, but both sides assured skeptics that all journalists would have unrestricted freedom to cover the Games. The scenario put forward by the IOC and the Chinese government was that, buoyed by Olympic ideals, China would grow away from government control of the flow of information, and stop jailing those who fall afoul of that system. The message was that the media, unfettered for the Games, would continue to be free after the world’s attention moved on.

That opening has not happened, although China did lift some restrictions on foreign journalists in January 2007. In fact, since the Games were awarded, media restrictions have grown — and in recent weeks they have even accelerated. In advance of the 17th Communist Party Congress on October 15 authorities have intensified efforts to control the media, in particular online news and discussion forums. Public security officers have closed entire Internet Data Centers (IDCs). IDCs physically house servers, often several at a time, which in turn host hundreds and sometimes thousands of websites each.

This assault on the technical infrastructure of the Internet makes it clear that the government has not been able to stay on top of the challenge of controlling the flow of information. Censors still issue a flood of day-to-day “guidance” on exactly what can be reported in print, on air, and on the Internet in all its manifestations—Web sites, blogs, message boards, discussion groups, and even instant messaging and telephone texting. Despite these tactics, information flows at an ever increasing rate in China.

That’s a quick overview of the control system in place, but let me try to put a human face on some of its most harshly treated victims:

As I have said, more than half of those journalists in jail are there because of Internet-related activity. Many posted articles on overseas Web sites, notably Boxun News and Epoch Times, which works closely with the Falun Gong. Many jailed journalists straddle the line between political activism and journalism—for an analogy, think of Thomas Paine and the impact of the pamphlet he called Common Sense. Making the distinction between journalist and activist becomes even harder in the Internet Age, when everyone has the digital equivalent of a Colonial-era printing press on their computer desktop.

Typical of those straddling that line are Chen Renjie and Lin Youping, jailed in 1983 for writing and publishing 300 copies of a pamphlet entitled Ziyou Bao (Freedom Report). By CPJ’s count, they are the world’s longest serving journalists. Chen was sentenced to life in prison, Lin was sentenced to death with reprieve. A third colleague, Chen Biling was executed. Those arrests, in 1982, came at the very beginning of the liberalized economic growth that has transformed China today.

Let’s fast forward to a time in which China has come to enjoy the fruit of that economic growth. In 2005, Li Changqing was the deputy director of Fuzhou Ribao (Fuzhou Daily) was jailed in February 2005. He had investigated the arrest of a whistleblower, Huang Jingao Li was initially accused of subversion, tortured, repeatedly questioned, and then not charged. Unable to convict on the subversion charge, prosecutors came up with a new one: “deliberately fabricating and spreading alarmist information.” The new charge was related to an article Li had written for Boxun about the spread of dengue fever, an annual warm-weather event in Fujian. Li found there were at least 100 cases that year, the official tally was 20 cases. Li is due out in February 2008.

Shi Tao, the former editorial director at the Changsha-based newspaper Dangdai Shang Bao was formally arrested in November 2004 after he “provided state secrets to foreigners” when he sent an e-mail on his Yahoo account to friends in the U.S. He had transcribed his notes from the local propaganda department’s instructions on how to cover the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. He was given a 10-year term in April 2005, after Yahoo cooperated with investigators and gave them the information needed to track him down.

Zhao Yan is free now, released on September 15 this year. He was a Chinese researcher who worked for the Beijing bureau of the New York Times. He was imprisoned for three years in September 2004, on charges of fraud, after originally being arrested for revealing state secrets. He had been accused of releasing state secrets after an article in the Times correctly predicted the retirement of Jiang Zemin as the head of the military commission. The prosecutors could not make the state-secrets charge stick, so they tried Zhao on a most likely trumped-up charge of fraud instead. He is the first person to be charged with, but acquitted of, revealing state secrets in China.

Not so lucky is Ching Cheong, a reporter for the Singapore-based Straits Times. He was arrested in Guangzhou when he tried to meet with a source to get an interview with ousted leader Zhao Ziyang. Accused of gathering information for Taiwan, court records that later appeared online showed that he had written and researched openly for the Foundation of International and Cross Straits Studies, a Taiwan think tank but not an intelligence gathering organization.  He is set to be released in April 2010.

The imprisonment of journalists who work for foreign media like Zhao and Ching, chilling as they are, are far outnumbered by the cases of local journalists who have few allies once they are caught in the government’s legal snare. China uses the law as a tool to punish the press for reporting on issues that might embarrass the government or challenge its public officials.

The list is long, so I’ll stop here. Full information on all those journalists in jail, in China and around the world, is available at cpj.org.

These are serious cases, incidents of people jailed for running afoul of the authorities while pursuing their work as journalists. But their situation needs a fuller explanation.

The reality is that the overwhelmingly vast majority of journalists do not go to jail in China and manage to fill the country’s newspapers and Web sites and broadcast media with information that increasingly tests the government’s controls. In China’s expanding media universe there are many hard-working journalists. They know that they must adhere to strict guidelines when reporting, and if they don’t their editors will trim their copy to fit the government’s restrictions. Editors, in turn are closely watched and running tally sheets are kept of their errors. Too many and an unwary editor can find him- or herself demoted, or reassigned to a less prestigious publication far away from home. But many still push the limits of the restrictions, trying to break news stories before the censors can weigh in. Directives from the propaganda arm of the government come in a steady flow, and are quite specific. The flow is daily, unrelenting, and covers every conceivable topic, from the serious to the banal. It reaches to each and every publication, official or otherwise.

For foreign journalists, conditions have gotten slightly better. In December Premier Wen Jiabao announced that some restrictions on foreign journalists conducting interviews with Chinese sources would be lifted, and that foreign correspondents would be allowed to travel around the country more freely. The new regulations last only until October 2008, and apply only to foreign journalists working in China—not to their local counterparts.

Foreign journalists in China do report fewer hassles and restrictions since the new regulations were handed down, although many local officials and powerful businessmen have yet to get the message. But most journalists still operate under the assumption that their phones are tapped and their e-mail is monitored. Local Chinese journalists say that the conditions under which they work have not changed. Many are wary of working too closely with their foreign colleagues and many tell CPJ they are cautious about taking advantage of the freedoms that might open up during the Games. What will happen to them once the spotlight has moved on from the Games, and foreign media have packed up and gone home?

This is the atmosphere into which some 20,000 to 30,000 foreign journalists and technicians will find themselves in August 2008. What can we do to change it before then?

CPJ sees the coming months before the Games as a window of opportunity to pressure China by using our traditional forms of advocacy—letter and alert writing, seeking meetings with government officials—as well as making use of some potential allies.

The agreement to award the Games to China in 2001 was made by the International Olympic Committee, and, while the IOC is a conservative organization, resistant to change, we do see them as still vulnerable to international pressure—though the fact that they declined to send a representative to meet with us today does not bode well. It is time for the international community to start pressuring the IOC to follow through on the commitments it said were made when they awarded the games to Beijing in 2001. We should keep the IOC at the front of our minds when looking for those responsible for improving the conditions for journalists in China.

Likewise, the Games’ corporate sponsors—Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, Atos Origin, General Electric, Kodak, Lenovo, Manulife, McDonalds, Omega, Panasonic, Samsung, and Visa—should be pressured to argue for the release of jailed journalists in China. CPJ is discussing how best to use our journalistic connections to bring our concerns to sponsors’ attention.  And we are using our close contacts within NBC to make sure that message is delivered through the news-gathering side of the NBC operation. We know NBC News will not trim its coverage of the Games just because other NBC divisions have the broadcast rights to the Games. 

And there is another place where those journalistic connections are already at work: The report we released in August, in Beijing—Falling Short, As the 2008 Olympics Approach, China Falters on Press Freedom—has been widely distributed to the media. We wrote it so that journalists and the media organizations sending them to cover the Games could be fully aware that their Chinese colleagues do not enjoy the same freedom they ostensibly do to roam the country, asking questions. They might well find themselves the target of an irate government once the Games’ intense media coverage has moved on.  That reality is an appropriate subject for news coverage, before during and after the Games, and we have repeatedly encouraged journalists to cover the story. We expect it to be a large part of the Olympics coverage.

What do we want from China?

We think it is realistic to call on the government of China to release the 29 journalists in prison for their work by October 2008. Six of those prisoners are due to be released sometime before the Games begin—they should be released immediately, definitely before January 1st of the Olympic year. Another, Fan Yingshang, is due to be released sometime before October 16, 2008, though the exact date is not clear. Two others, Chen Renjie and Lin Youping, the journalists jailed since 1983 and held with no release date, should also be released at the same time.

Further, China should use the relaxation of rules for foreign journalists as a baseline from which to start dismantling its elaborate system of media controls. The current system is archaic and counter-productive and at odds with the advanced economic state China has become. China has invested in infrastructure like roads and ports, communications systems, increasingly open and transparent markets, and it is moving toward a reliable legal system. It must realize that open media also play an integral part in a modern economy, and its approach harkens back to the harsher authoritarian tactics it has abandoned in so many other areas.

And, also, as China seeks to improve its legal system, it must work to end the climate of impunity surrounding the violent retribution meted out by local officials and others angered by critical media coverage.

Having awarded the Games to China, we call on the IOC to insist that the government fully meet its promises of press freedom for the Games. The IOC represented all of us when it negotiated the terms of the Games in 2001. At the time it sent out placating messages, assuring us that our widespread concerns about media freedom were being addressed. Now it has a responsibility to make sure that those reassurances it gave back in 2001 are fulfilled.

Finally, as an organization of journalists working for the benefit of our colleagues in China and around the world, CPJ calls on media organizations covering the Games to pressure China to honor the pledges it made to the IOC and ensure that their Chinese journalists enjoy the same freedoms visiting journalists enjoy—and report fully on the adverse conditions under which their colleagues must work in China.

Thank you.