PENDING MEMBERSHIP IN THE WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION and fledgling steps towards greater dialogue with Taiwan are just two recent signs that China is opening up to the world, a trend that some say will lead to greater freedoms within the country. The ruling Communist Party, however, has yet to extend this opening to the news media and other forms of expression. If anything, there was retrenchment in Beijing’s attitude toward the press in 2000, as regulations governing the internet were dramatically tightened and 22 journalists continued to languish in prison.
President Jiang Zemin began the year by railing against party members and others who were “openly expressing opposition to the party line in newspapers, books, and speeches.” His remarks, made during an internal party meeting in January, came in reaction to an essay by respected academic Li Shenzhi, former secretary to the late premier Zhou Enlai and retired vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), that was widely circulated online. Titled “50 Years of Panic, Trials, and Tribulations: Lonely Nighttime Thoughts on National Day,” Li’s essay criticized China’s extravagant celebrations on the anniversary of a half-century of Communist rule.
Li was subsequently dismissed from CASS in a purge of liberal intellectuals that included Liu Junning, who was forced to leave CASS and to step down as editor of the intellectual journal Res Publica, a magazine he founded in 1995. Other victims of the spring crackdown were He Qinglian, author of the book China’s Pitfalls, who was demoted from her job as editor of the Shenzhen Legal Daily; Wang Yan, who was dismissed as editor and publisher of the popular national weekly China Business and the Jingping Consumer Guide; and Yu Jie, forced to leave his job at a unit of the Chinese Writers Association after publishing a number of frank commentaries on social issues, including a book of essays called Fire and Ice.
Several progressive publishing houses were either reined in or closed altogether, including Reform Press, which was shut down after publishing a book entitled The Secret Scriptures of Officialdom that detailed the prevalence of corruption within the Communist Party. All this related to Jiang’s so-called Three Stresses and Three Representations campaigns, designed to strengthen ideological conformity among party cadres.
In separate incidents, two Internet journalists, Huang Qi and Qi Yanchen, were arrested and charged with subversion for posting articles that officials deemed anti-government. Web sites critical of the regime were shut down, and news content on independent Web sites was strictly circumscribed by new regulations. Government security agencies continue to monitor and restrict access to international Web sites, pursuing a contradictory policy of promoting Internet use while attempting to restrict content and threaten journalists. (See special report.)
When confronted with challenges to its rule, Beijing reacted in fury. In December, Teng Chunyan, an American citizen and member of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, was sentenced to three years in prison for alleged crimes against national security that included serving as a source on Falun Gong for news organizations. She was the first overseas Falun Gong member to be tried in China since the sect was banned in 1999.
While the state officially encourages investigative reporting on local corruption, Chinese journalists who uncover malfeasance have little protection against the ire of local officials. In July, a Hong Kong newspaper revealed that a Xinhua state news agency journalist had been jailed since December 1998 for reporting that a much-touted irrigation system in drought-plagued Shanxi Province was actually an elaborate scam. A local newspaper, The Yuncheng Daily, reported that 67,000 water tanks had been built in just six months, but Gao discovered that these cisterns were not connected to any water source, and that there were no pipes carrying water to irrigate the fields. The story originally ran in a limited edition of the official People’s Daily that circulates only among Communist Party leaders, but was eventually picked up by the Guangdong newspaper Southern Weekend. The journalist, Gao Qinrong, is serving 13 years in jail.
As CPJ and others campaigned for Gao’s release, a Chinese magazine, Democracy and Law, argued in October that local authorities had abused their authority by persecuting the journalist. “We have been following this case for a long time and finally decided to run the story,” the magazine’s chief editor, Wang Qianghua, told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. “Our policy is to speak the truth and dare to speak the truth.”
How many other such cases are there? It is almost impossible to know, given the dearth of press advocacy in China. The official All-China Journalists Association (ACJA) rarely, if ever, advocates expanding the rights of journalists. “The ACJA was not set up with the goal of protecting Chinese journalists,” a leading journalist told CPJ. “They don’t mention freedom of the press at all.”
In January, Xinhua reported that 27 newspapers had been punished for “political errors,” fabricating stories, illegally publishing supplements, and distributing sensationalized news. The exact punishments were not specified and the newspapers were not named.
Still, the state has relaxed its grip on certain types of non-political news in recent years, allowing detailed reporting about domestic disasters and crime. When 58 illegal Chinese immigrants died in a container ship off the coast of England in June, Chinese reporters were quick to document connections between immigrants abroad and officials at home who protected the trade in human cargo. In late December, similarly, a night-club fire that claimed 309 lives in the city of Luoyang was widely covered by state television and other media, which found evidence that local authorities had allowed the club to operate in violation of fire codes. After gruesome pictures and eyewitness accounts of the tragedy sparked public outrage, Premier Zhu Rongji himself pledged to apprehend those responsible.
Independent political journalism does not exist in China, where the Communist Party enforces rigid adherence to one-party rule. Instead, the daily press is filled with ritual denunciations of Falun Gong and others who deviate from official dogma. Despite officially improved relations with the United States and Japan, China’s major trading partners, the state media also continued to serve up a steady diet of attacks on both countries, leading to diplomatic tensions.
The notion of an unnamed official source shedding light on affairs of state is unheard of in domestic media. President Jiang Zemin and other top leaders are presented as opaque figures whose chief duties seem to consist of greeting foreign leaders and presiding over official ceremonies. (The January 2001 publication of The Tiananmen Papers, a book edited by two American Sinologists that contains purportedly leaked transcripts of internal discussions among party leaders about how to quell the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, was astonishing largely because of its detailed account of Party workings.)
Foreign correspondents based in China are freer to work and travel than in the past, but they still face routine surveillance and are supposed to seek special permission before leaving their city of residence. Failure to do so can result in detention by local police for several hours, or even days. Members of the foreign press corps in Beijing say that the travel restrictions, if followed, would make it virtually impossible to cover breaking news stories. “Almost everyone based here for more than several months has been arrested for being outside the city limits without a permit at some time,” one foreign reporter told CPJ. “Usually they just let us go after several hours. It is basically harassment.”
Three years after China gained control of Hong Kong in exchange for a promise to leave its political and economic liberties intact, Beijing expressed open hostility toward the former British colony’s largely uncensored media, prompting unease among local journalists.
In March, Beijing went ballistic when Hong Kong Cable TV broadcast an interview with Annette Lu, a supporter of Taiwanese independence who had just been elected vice-president of Taiwan. Lu’s contention that Taiwan and China were only “distant relatives” prompted mainland official Wang Fengchao to suggest that the Hong Kong press should not be allowed to cover issues relating to Taiwanese or Tibetan independence. In addition, he demanded that the Hong Kong government enact sedition laws to punish anyone who broached such forbidden topics.
The independent Hong Kong Journalists Association reacted by releasing a petition signed by 837 journalists, vowing “resolute opposition to becoming propaganda tools for promoting state policies.” After much prodding, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, Beijing’s handpicked leader, publicly re-affirmed that press freedom was guaranteed under the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that governs the territory.
While the Hong Kong government did not in fact pass laws on covering Taiwan or anything else, Wang’s outburst led many observers to argue that such statements could slowly undermine press freedom by encouraging Hong Kong journalists to censor themselves lest they offend Beijing.
In October, Chinese president Jiang Zemin berated a group of Hong Kong reporters in Beijing. After a reporter asked Jiang if the beleaguered Tung was the “emperor’s choice” to remain in power in Hong Kong for a second five-year term, the president became furious. “I’m addressing you as an elder. I’m not a reporter. But I have seen too much and it’s necessary to tell you,” Jiang lectured in a raised voice, in front of the TV cameras. “In reporting, if there are errors you must be responsible…. You ask me whether we support Mr. Tung? If we don’t support him, how could he be chief executive?” Following the outburst, Jiang turned his back on the reporters and muttered that they were “naïve.”
Hong Kong’s newspapers reacted with fury. “In just a few minutes, Mr. Jiang has undermined his own reputation,” said the Hong Kong daily iMail. Apple Daily, a leading Chinese-language paper, called Jiang’s performance a tantrum and printed a cartoon of the Chinese leader spouting fire on a blackened and bewildered television crew.
The year’s incidents underscored the political culture gap between the mainland and Hong Kong, whose press is one of the freest in Asia and guards its liberties jealously. The territory is a center for the Chinese-language press worldwide, and an important source of news and commentary on mainland affairs. Beijing chafes at the constant criticism it receives in Hong Kong, but any overt action to curb civil liberties there would likely further strain relations with Taiwan, another democratic territory that Beijing hopes to entice with promises of autonomy and guaranteed freedoms.
In November, senior columnist Willy Wo-Lap Lam lost his high-profile job as China editor of the English-language South China Morning Post. Many viewed Lam’s demotion as a sign of Beijing’s dissatisfaction with the Hong Kong media. The move prompted Lam to resign from the paper in anger, claiming that the Post planned to “depoliticize” its China coverage.
Several months earlier, the newspaper’s majority shareholder, Robert Kuok, had personally criticized Lam in the Post’s letters section. The owner objected to a column suggesting that Beijing had ordered several Hong Kong tycoons, Kuok included, to rally behind Chief Executive Tung. But even though Kuok dismissed the article as “absolute exaggeration and fabrication,” Lam stood by his story. The Post denied that Lam’s replacement as China editor had anything to do with pressure from either Kuok or Beijing, insisting that he was free to continue writing for the paper.