Attacks on the Press 2003: China (including Hong Kong)
March 11, 2004 12:06 PM ET
With the commercialization of the press, the rapid spread of the Internet, and international condemnation of a government cover-up of the SARS virus, the new administration of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao faced a series of tests over government censorship policies in 2003. Although Hu initially called for the press to take on a more active watchdog role in society when he took power in March, by year's end, he had confirmed that stringent government control over the media would remain the status quo.
As 2003 began, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus was spreading across southern China, generating what would soon become an international health crisis. The local propaganda bureau in Guangdong Province, where the virus first appeared, initially banned journalists from reporting on the illness. According to press reports, by early February, Guangdong authorities had notified central officials of the epidemic. Yet as it spread to Hong Kong and throughout the world, Beijing continued to deny its severity.
In the run-up to the annual March meeting of the National People's Congress, which formally transferred power to Hu and Wen, propaganda officials banned all negative reporting, including news about SARS. In mid-March, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued travel warnings for Hong Kong and southern China. The government ordered the media not to report the warning, and three days later, Chinese Health Minister Zhang Wenkang announced at a press conference that, "SARS has been placed under effective control."
In early April, whistle-blower Jiang Yanyong, a doctor at a Beijing military hospital, exposed the prevalence of SARS cases in Beijing to the international media, escalating pressure on the government to acknowledge the crisis. On April 17, President Hu admitted the SARS cover-up to the powerful Politburo and called for immediate and forceful action to fight the disease. Three days later, Health Minister Zhang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong were fired for their role in the cover-up. By the time the epidemic abated in July, 774 people had died in 11 countries, including 349 in mainland China and 299 in Hong Kong, according to the WHO.
Following the government's delayed but candid response to SARS, many observers believed that China's leaders had learned an important lesson about the dangers of information control. But this optimism was tempered when authorities continued to censor stories about a number of sensitive issues, including AIDS, labor unrest, the retirement of outgoing Premier Zhu Rongji, a wave of violent crime, North Korean refugees, and popular protests in Hong Kong against proposed anti-subversion legislation.
In March, Ershiyi Shiji Huanqiu Baodao (21st Century World Herald), a newspaper owned by the Nanfang Daily Group, was suspended after it ran an interview with Mao Zedong's former secretary Li Rui, who criticized the current political system and called for reforms. The paper, which had run stories about SARS and other sensitive topics, gained instant popularity when it was launched in May 2002. Authorities also continued the ongoing assault on Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend), another Nanfang Daily Group newspaper, which was China's most progressive and daring paper before a crackdown in 2001 in which top editors were dismissed. One month after the 21st Century World Herald was suspended, Zhang Dongming, an official from the Guangdong Propaganda Bureau, was installed as editor-in-chief of Southern Weekend as part of an officially mandated restructuring of the Nanfang Daily Group.
The government initiated far-reaching media reforms in 2003 by instituting regulations requiring all publications to earn at least 50 percent of their revenue from voluntary subscriptions. These reforms dealt a huge blow to the hundreds of government publications that had subsisted on mandatory subscriptions that government offices required of civil servants and party cadres. In November, authorities closed 673 unprofitable official newspapers and made 87 more free of charge, according to official press reports. Journalists will thus find themselves increasingly caught between readers' demands for aggressive reporting and propaganda officials' demands for whitewashed news.
The new commercial pressures on the media have already yielded positive results for journalists, seen in the unprecedented coverage of the United States' military action in Iraq in the spring. Television stations fed live broadcasts from Baghdad and launched a new 24-hour news program on China Central Television. Newspaper reporters were embedded with U.S. troops; in total, about 100 Chinese journalists were sent to Iraq to cover the war. That was a stark contrast to the 1991 Gulf War, which was mentioned briefly at the end of the nightly news broadcast. Only one Chinese journalist, from the official Xinhua News Agency, reported from Iraq during the Gulf War.
During the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, Chinese TV stations had to wait to broadcast the breaking news until they had received official sanction, so viewers turned to the Internet or overseas publications for information. In 2003, media owners didn't want to lose out again to online or foreign competitors, and the government, which officially owns all media, did not object. Chinese journalists attributed the change in official attitude to increased tolerance for more open reporting about issues in which China is not directly involved. One Chinese reporter told Agence France-Presse, "The guidelines are that if it doesn't concern China directly you can go with it, but if it concerns the Chinese government you still have to toe the official line."
The humanitarian plight of North Korean refugees in China proved to be an example of the latter. The Chinese government treats the refugees--who cross the border by the thousands to escape food shortages and political repression at home--as economic migrants and regularly repatriates them to North Korea. The issue has become thornier for Beijing in recent years, with refugees and their supporters staging well-publicized raids of foreign embassies in efforts to claim asylum. Journalists who try to document these asylum attempts face harassment or arrest. Jae Hyun Seok, a South Korean freelance photographer who worked regularly for The New York Times, was arrested in January while filming a group of North Korean refugees attempting to flee China by boat for South Korea and Japan. In May, he was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of "human trafficking." In August, South Korean journalists Kim Seung Jin and Geum Myeong Seok were also arrested while documenting refugees' attempts to enter a school run by the Japanese government in Shanghai. They were released and deported three weeks later.
Jae Hyun Seok was one of 39 journalists imprisoned in China at year's end, and the only foreigner on that list. Six journalists--Jiang Qisheng, Wang Daqi, Qi Yanchen, Liu Di, Kang Yuchun, and An Jun--were released in 2003. Seven more were arrested: Seok and six Internet essayists--Luo Yongzhong, Du Daobin, Luo Changfu, Yan Jun, Cai Lujun, and Kong Youping. Prolonged international and domestic pressure to release imprisoned journalists helped in some cases. Internet essayist Liu Di was freed before being formally charged, and, in a rare move, the Liaoning Provincial Higher Court reduced the eight-year sentence of journalist Jiang Weiping to six years on appeal. Jiang was arrested in 2000 for his reporting on high-profile corruption cases in northeast China and received CPJ's International Press Freedom Award in 2001. He is now eligible for parole.
Local officials and private citizens implicated in investigative media reports increasingly use physical force to threaten and intimidate journalists. In November, the official press reported that journalism had become the third most dangerous career in China, following coal mining and police work. In December, Fazhi Ribao (Legal Daily) published a report titled "Journalists' right to report challenged," which documented 11 attacks on reporters throughout 2003. In one of these incidents, in August, security guards at the Jiangsu Provincial Education Bureau beat eight journalists who tried to attend a private meeting there. One of the journalists told Southern Weekend that it was the third time in a year he had been violently attacked for his reporting. While journalists' demands for laws to protect their "right to report" have gone unheeded, beleaguered reporters scored a victory in June, when two assailants who had attacked Jinghua Shibao (Beijing Times) reporter Yang Wei in 2002 were sentenced to one year in prison. According to a report on the Renmin Ribao (People's Daily) Web site, the arrest marked the first time an assailant was convicted for attacking a journalist in Beijing.
The Internet played an increasingly important role for independent writers, academics, and others whose opinions the traditional media did not welcome. In several cases, online exposure of stories about crime, corruption, and industrial accidents pressured the mainstream media into reporting on previously taboo topics. With 78 million people online in China by year's end, the government faced an uphill battle in controlling Internet speech, with Web users becoming more adept and forceful in defending their right to free expression. Nevertheless, officials continued to use sophisticated technology, require Internet Service Providers and cybercafé owners to censor clients, and threaten imprisonment to control online activities. Several especially outspoken Internet writers were targeted for arrest in 2003. Liu Di, a college student in Beijing who was arrested in November 2002, spent more than a year in incommunicado detention after writing a series of sarcastic essays advocating political and social reforms in China. Her case became a cause célèbre among Chinese Internet users around the world, and on November 28, 2003, authorities released her on bail.
In October authorities arrested Du Daobin, one of China's most prominent and well-respected Internet essayists, who led an online movement demanding Liu's release. He was charged with "subversion" but had not been tried by year's end. More than 1,000 of his supporters--including mainstream journalists, lawyers, academics, and others--signed open letters to Premier Wen demanding his release and the right to free expression, which the Chinese Constitution guarantees. Hong Kong
JOURNALISTS AND CITIZENS IN HONG KONG SCORED an unprecedented victory in 2003 by overturning government plans to implement legislation that would have outlawed subversion.
Throughout 2003, Hong Kong journalists reported aggressively on the raging debates over the proposed legislation, as well as on the SARS epidemic, which killed 299 people in the territory. Both issues helped embolden the territory's media, which have occasionally been criticized in the past for practicing self-censorship and tailoring reporting to cater to corporate or political interests.
In February, the Beijing-backed government in Hong Kong introduced draft legislation outlawing sedition, subversion, secession, and the theft of state secrets, as required under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution. The draft, which was submitted after a three-month "public consultation" period, ignored many concerns raised by critics that the proposed legislation seriously threatened press freedom. The government also ignored calls for a "White Bill" that the public could review and amend before submission to the Legislative Council.
A broad spectrum of Hong Kong society--including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Hong Kong Bar Association, journalists, librarians, lawyers, legislators, banking officials, and religious figures--rallied against the law and staged public protests opposing its passage by the Legislative Council, of which only 24 of 60 members are directly elected by the public.
Anger over Article 23 fueled widespread discontent over the administration of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and his handling of the economy and the SARS crisis. The public's dissatisfaction peaked in a protest march on the sixth anniversary of the July 1, 1997, handover of the territory to China from the United Kingdom. The demonstration, which was expected to attract 100,000 people, drew a crowd of 500,000--the largest march in Hong Kong since 1989, when hundreds of thousands of people gathered to protest the military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing.
In late July, Security Minister Regina Ip resigned, citing personal reasons, after becoming a target of anti-Article 23 protesters for her uncompromising support of the legislation. In a matter of days, Tung announced that he had withdrawn the proposed legislation "to allow sufficient time for the community to study the enactment question." The government is expected to reintroduce the bill in the future, but Tung has not yet announced a timetable or specific plans to involve the public in the process.
Hong Kong citizens have been galvanized by this issue, and in District Council elections in November, a record number of voters turned out to support the opposition Democratic Party, which had led the protests against Article 23. The movement's momentum carried through to the year's end, with citizens escalating calls for a more representative government and greater democracy.