Attacks on the Press 1999: China

Conditions for the heavily-controlled Chinese press worsened dramatically in 1999 as a broad clampdown on dissent and free expression led to fresh arrests of journalists, massive propaganda campaigns and systematic efforts by the secret police to monitor and control the Internet. Eleven journalists were arrested in 1999, bringing the total number of journalists in prison to 19. China now has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world.

Authorities were particularly sensitive to dissent in 1999 because of several major anniversary dates–among them the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, and the fiftieth anniversary of the communist victory on October 1. Communist Party officials issued directives to the media banning any mention of the June 4 “incident,” and restricting coverage of other historically significant events to ensure adherence to the party line.

Press freedom was a key demand of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protesters–“don’t force us to lie” was a popular slogan of journalists at the time–and it remains a primary demand of pro-democracy activists, many of whom suffered for their cause last year. In December, for example, 20-year-old Wang Yingzheng was sentenced to four years in prison for photocopying an open letter he had written to President Jiang Zemin denouncing corruption and calling for press freedom.

Journalists were forced to participate in numerous lockstep propaganda efforts during 1999. Coordinated, state-directed media campaigns were launched against the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, against pro-democracy activists, and against Tibet’s Dalai Lama. Authorities were also careful to ensure that local media covered the October anniversary of the Communist revolution and the December return of Macau to Chinese rule with proper patriotic fervor. During the Tiananmen anniversary period, CNN was thrown off the air in China for several days. In October, editions of Newsweek and Time commemorating the founding of the communist state were barred from sale in China, even as executives of Time-Warner (which owns both CNN and Time) gathered for a gala conference in Beijing that placed special emphasis on investment opportunities for multinational corporations.

In April and May, nearly all Chinese news media joined a massive, state-led propaganda effort against NATO’s bombing of the former Yugoslavia. U.S. President Bill Clinton was frequently depicted as a Hitler-like figure, while Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic was cast as a “people’s hero” and a defender of human rights. The campaign stepped up dramatically following NATO’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which infuriated the Chinese government. The three Chinese journalists killed in the bombing were lionized as martyrs , and the incident became a patriotic rallying point. Meanwhile, Chinese media omitted the ethnic cleansing of Albanians by Serbian soldiers and militia from their coverage of the Balkan war.

No sooner had the furor over the NATO bombing begun to die down than authorities banned the Falun Gong sect in July and launched yet another media onslaught, loosing a torrent of news articles and television programs denouncing Falun Gong members and the movement’s founder, Li Hongzhi, as charlatans and murderers. “To many people, this political campaign … recalls the mass campaigns of the Cultural Revolution, during which everyone was expected to parrot the party line at endless meetings,” wrote long-time China-watcher Frank Ching in the Hong Kong-based weekly Far Eastern Economic Review.

In recent years, China’s rapid economic growth has fueled a surge in Internet use (the number of users has reportedly doubled in the past year to more than nine million), especially among younger, more well-educated Chinese. But security officials see the new technology as a threat to state control. China’s secretive Ministry of State Security now has an entire department devoted to tracking dissidents online, according to press reports and the U.S. State Department. In May, security agents installed monitoring devices on the computers used by Internet service providers in Beijing to allow them to track individual e-mail accounts, according to The Washington Post. In addition, new regulations issued in January required Internet cafés to register with the police, while several locally-based Internet bulletin boards were banned during the year for posting oppositional content.

Dissident use of the Internet has provoked stern reactions from the state. Free-lance writer Qi Yanchen, for example, was arrested in September after he posted excerpts of his unpublished book, The Collapse of China, online. A student, Zhang Ji, was charged in November with “disseminating reactionary documents via the Internet” because he had e-mailed news about the crackdown on the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement to readers abroad. Lin Hai, a software entrepreneur who was arrested in 1998 in China’s first Internet speech case, was sentenced in January 1999 to two years in prison for “inciting the overthrow of state power.” His crime: giving 30,000 Chinese e-mail addresses to a dissident on-line magazine.

After President Jiang Zemin complained that too many publications were in circulation, new restrictions were announced requiring shippers of printed materials to obtain government permits. With all media subject to state licensing, any attempt to publish without official approval can lead to jail time. In June four journalists associated with the banned China Democracy Party were imprisoned for editing an unauthorized magazine and distributing articles on the Internet. And in July, three journalists who attempted to published an independent magazine for workers were given lengthy prison terms.

A directive issued in September calls for all publications to be placed under direct Communist Party supervision. The move could lead to the closure of thousands of small publications, as niche tabloids in the provinces will be forced to merge.

Despite China’s historically dismal record on issues of free expression and human rights, U.S. and Chinese negotiators concluded a deal in November that should pave the way for China’s formal entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). The agreement did not mention press freedom. Supporters of the deal say that joining the WTO will lead to more openness in Chinese society. Critics disagree, citing last year’s events as proof that little has changed in the minds of China’s political elite. (See separate entries on Hong Kong and Macau.)

January 20
Lin Hai, software entrepreneur IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION

A three-judge panel of the Shanghai Intermediate People’s Court found Lin guilty of “inciting the subversion of state power” and sentenced him to two years in prison. Lin was convicted for providing the e-mail addresses of 30,000 Chinese residents to VIP Reference, a U.S.-based online magazine that supports democratic reform in China. Subversion, one of China’s most serious crimes, is a charge typically reserved for political dissidents.

In their verdict, the judges said Lin deserved to be “punished harshly,” according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China. The court also ordered Lin to pay a fine of 10,000 yuan (US$1,200) and confiscated two desktop computers, one laptop, a modem, and a telephone as “the tools of his crime.”

Lin’s wife, Xu Hong, was present during the half-hour sentencing, but was not permitted to speak to her husband. She said it was the first time she had seen him since he was arrested on March 25, 1998. Lin was first tried in secret by the Shanghai Number One Intermediate People’s Court on December 4, 1998. Xu told reporters that on the day of the trial, police seized her in a restaurant and detained her for six hours at a local police station near the courthouse, to prevent her from either attending the hearing or speaking to foreign correspondents.

Shanghai’s Higher People’s Court rejected Lin’s appeal on March 22. His testimony indicates that he provided the addresses to VIP Reference in the hope that he might eventually build up his own Internet business by exchanging e-mail addresses with the magazine. VIP Reference used the addresses to expand its distribution of articles on human rights and democracy within mainland China.

CPJ sent letters to President Jiang Zemin on December 8, 1998, and January 20, 1999, stating that Lin’s imprisonment was profoundly disturbing, as it signaled the Chinese government’s antagonism toward the free flow of information that is the hallmark of the Internet.

February 15
Gao Yu, free-lancer LEGAL ACTION, CENSORED

The government released jailed free-lance journalist Gao from prison on February 15, two weeks before a planned visit by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. Gao had served all but nine months of her six-year sentence for “divulging state secrets.” Released on medical parole, she has suffered from high blood pressure and kidney problems since her prolonged incarceration. Chinese authorities had rejected an earlier appeal for bail on medical grounds in January 1997.

The People’s Intermediate Court in Beijing convicted and sentenced Gao during a closed trial in November 1994, on charges that she had leaked state secrets about China’s structural reforms in articles published in Hong Kong’s Mirror Monthly magazine. She was originally arrested on October 2, 1993, just two days before she was scheduled to leave for the U.S. to begin a one-year research fellowship at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Under the conditions of her parole, Gao was forbidden to publish her writings or speak to journalists. She could not leave her Beijing neighborhood without official authorization. Even with written permission from the police, Gao was forbidden to leave Beijing for more than three days at a time. In a statement issued on February 16, CPJ welcomed Gao’s release, but urged China to lift the various restrictions imposed on her.

Gao’s sentence officially expired on October 2. Though she is no longer on parole, she was instructed to have no contact with the media, and has abided by these conditions.

February 26
Wang Yingzheng, free-lancer IMPRISONED

Police arrested free-lance journalist Wang in the city of Xuzhou, in eastern Jiangsu Province, as he was making photocopies of an article he had written on political reform. The article was based on an open letter that the 19-year-old Wang had addressed to President Jiang Zemin. In the letter, Wang wrote, “Many Chinese are discontented with the government’s inability to squash corruption. This is largely due to a lack of opposition parties and a lack of press freedom,” according to a report published by Agence France-Presse.

Wang was reportedly imprisoned for two weeks in September 1998 and questioned about his association with Qin Yongmin, a key leader of the opposition China Democracy Party who was sentenced to twelve years in prison in December 1998.

On December 10, 1999,Wang was found guilty of subversion and sentenced to three years in prison. His trial was closed to the public, but authorities notified his family of the verdict by mail, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.

March 4
20 Hong Kong journalists HARASSED

Police in Shantou briefly detained 20 Hong Kong journalists who were attempting to cover an ongoing murder trial.

The 20 reporters and photographers were among a large group of journalists from Hong Kong who were in Shantou to cover the trial of Li Yuhui on March 4. Although Li was arrested and charged in China, his alleged crimes were committed in Hong Kong. As a result, the trial attracted intense media interest in Hong Kong.

According to several Hong Kong newspapers, the journalists were arrested near a hairdressing salon run by the defendant’s wife. They were taken to a local police station, where they were held for questioning for an hour. “They [police] said the citizens were not used to the presence of so many non-local people,” one of the detained reporters said. The police reportedly believed the journalists’ activities could cause “panic” in the local population. The 20 journalists, all of whom had received official accreditation to cover the trial and were involved in news-gathering activities at the time of the incident, were later released and allowed to continue covering the trial.

In a March 4 letter to President Jiang Zemin, CPJ urged that Jiang reprimand the police for detaining the reporters and that he instruct local authorities in Shantou to allow the press covering the Li trial to work without restrictions or harassment.

March 12

The State Press and Publishing Bureau, which oversees the press on behalf of the Communist Party, ordered Fangfa, an influential, Beijing-based monthly magazine, to suspend operations immediately. The magazine, which had a circulation of 20,000 and was well known in academic circles for its frank discussion of political and economic reform, was originally licensed in 1988 as a natural science publication. It apparently drew the ire of authorities because its content had become too diversified.

The staff of Fangfa was not purged, according to newspaper reports, and the magazine may reopen if it adjusts its content to fit Communist Party requirements. But unnamed editors at the magazine said they had been warned that the staff could be fired if censorship guidelines were not followed.

The closure of Fangfa came amid a series of moves to curb the independent press in China. Several liberal magazines and book publishers were either closed or had their staffs purged earlier in 1999. Fangfa had been under increasing scrutiny from official censors over the past year for publishing articles that disturbed conservative ideologues in Beijing. Among them was an article co-written by a member of the banned China Democracy Party.

In a March 19 letter to President Jiang Zemin, CPJ protested the closure of Fangfa, arguing that the debates published in the magazine actually promoted the administration’s stated goals of reform and development.

May 11
Liu Xianli, free-lancer IMPRISONED

The Beijing Intermediate Court found Liu guilty of subversion and sentenced him to four years in prison, according to a report by the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.

Liu’s putative crime was attempting to publish a book on Chinese dissidents, including Xu Wenli, one of China’s most prominent political prisoners and a leading figure in the China Democracy Party. In December 1998, Xu was himself convicted of subversion and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

June 1
Wu Yilong, Opposition Party IMPRISONED
Mao Qingxiang, Opposition Party IMPRISONED
Zhu Yufu, Opposition Party IMPRISONED
Xu Guang, Opposition Party IMPRISONED

Wu, Mao, Zhu, and Xu were reportedly detained sometime around June 4, the 10th anniversary of the brutal Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. The four, all leading activists of the banned China Democracy Party, were later charged with subversion for editing a pro-democracy magazine called Opposition Party and circulating anti-establishment articles and essays via the Internet.

On October 25, the Hangzhou Intermediate People’s Court, in Zhejiang Province, conducted a “sham trial,” according to the New York Times. Only two of the defendants were represented by a lawyer, whom they shared. None of the accused were allowed to complete their testimony, according to news reports. The verdicts were not announced immediately.

On November 9, the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China reported that the four had been found guilty of “subversion.” Wu Yilong was sentenced to 11 years in prison–one of the most severe sentences imposed on a political prisoner in recent years. Mao was sentenced to eight years in prison; Zhu, to seven years; and Xu, to five years.

June 14
South China Morning Post HARASSED, CENSORED
Oriental Daily
Ming Pao
Apple Daily
Sing Tao
The Sun

Beijing police briefly detained 11 Hong Kong-based journalists as they were covering a visit by delegates from the territory’s Federation of Students. The journalists had accompanied the students to Beijing, where the delegation intended to present a petition before the National People’s Congress challenging China’s authority to interpret Hong Kong’s constitution.

The journalists, who worked for Hong Kong-based media, did not want their names publicized. Two were from the TVB television station, and two others worked for the Cable TV station. Also harassed were a reporter and a photographer from the English-language daily South China Morning Post, a reporter from the Chinese-language newspaper Oriental Daily, a reporter from the Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao, and one photographer each from the Chinese-language newspapers Apple Daily, Sing Tao, and The Sun.

Officers from Beijing’s Public Security Bureau (PSB) intercepted the journalists at around 6:45 a.m. on June 14, when they arrived with the student delegates at Beijing’s West Railway Station. According to several Hong Kong newspapers, the journalists were detained for more than an hour, their camera film and videotapes were seized, and they were warned not to report in the Tiananmen Square area without a special permit.

Nine of the journalists were released after they wrote letters indicating that they were aware of the rules governing reporting on the mainland, and acknowledging that reporting near Tiananmen Square without permission is illegal, according to the South China Morning Post. Two of the others were reportedly detained separately, and warned that they would be punished if they wrote about the group’s detention.

The student delegation was allowed to drop off its petition at the Great Hall of the People. One of the student leaders, Leung Pak-nang, told the news agency Agence France-Presse that according to the police their petition was legal, but media coverage of it was illegal. PSB officers then prevented the students from holding a press conference at their Beijing hotel.

In a June 16 letter to President Jiang Zemin, CPJ noted that the PSB’s efforts to prevent journalists from covering news of vital interest to the citizens of Hong Kong violated his administration’s pledges to respect the territory’s autonomy.

July 5
Yue Tianxiang, China Workers’ Monitor IMPRISONED
Guo Xinmin, China Workers’ Monitor IMPRISONED
Wang Fengshan, China Workers’ Monitor IMPRISONED

On July 5, the Tianshui People’s Intermediate Court in Gansu province sentenced Yue, Guo, and Wang to prison terms of 10 years, two years, and two years respectively for “subverting state power,” according to the Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China. The Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post reported that Yue, Guo, and Wang were jailed for publishing the China Workers’ Monitor, a journal that campaigned for workers’ rights.

Yue and Guo started the journal after their company denied them compensation following their dismissal in 1995. Wang helped Yue and Guo publish the journal. All three were members of the outlawed China Democracy Party and were planning to set up an organization to protect the rights of laid-off workers when they were arrested in January, various sources reported.

September 2
Qi Yanchen, free-lancer IMPRISONED

Police arrested free-lance journalist Qi at his home in Cangzhou, Hebei Province, for allegedly “spreading anti-government messages via the Internet.” Qi’s wife told reporters that police confiscated his computer, printer, fax machine, and a number of documents.

Qi had published many articles in intellectual journals, and was associated with the online magazine Consultations, a publication linked to the banned China Development Union. He also subscribed to the pro-democracy electronic newsletter VIP Reference, published by U.S.-based Chinese dissidents. Qi was employed as an economist with the local branch of the Agricultural Development Bank of China.

Qi’s arrest came after he posted on-line excerpts of his unpublished book The Collapse of China. The book theorized about Chinese social instability and proposed possible reforms, according to VIP Reference editor Richard Long.

On December 22, the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China announced that Qi had been indicted on subversion charges based on his Internet writings. His trial was pending at year’s end.

November 8
Zhang Ji, free-lancer IMPRISONED

Zhang, a student at Qiqihar University in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, was charged with “disseminating reactionary documents via the Internet,” according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.

Zhang had allegedly been distributing news and information about the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong. He was arrested sometime in October as part of the Chinese government’s crackdown on the sect.

Using the Internet, Zhang reportedly transmitted news of the crackdown to Falun Gong members in the United States and Canada, and also received reports from abroad that he then circulated among practitioners in China. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities had stepped up their surveillance of the Internet as part of the effort to crush Falun Gong.