Attacks on the Press 2007: China

In a year of internal political wrangling and further emergence on the global stage, Chinese leadership under President Hu Jintao showed a keen awareness of public opinion at home and abroad. But the result was not greater freedom for the press. The administration undertook a clumsy effort to woo the foreign press corps while simultaneously tightening control over the flow of information and commentary within China.

To mark the one-year countdown to the start of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, CPJ sent a delegation to the capital in August to release a special report, “Falling Short,” outlining China’s failure to live up to its promise of expanding media freedom in advance of the Summer Games. The 79-page report pointed up Chinese authorities’ continued control and abuse of journalists, particularly the domestic press. For the ninth consecutive year, China was the world’s leading jailer of journalists, with 29 imprisoned when CPJ conducted its annual census on December 1.

January 1, 2007, brought the implementation of a rule that appeared designed to appease international critics of China’s press freedom record in the run-up to the Games. The new regulations lifted a requirement that foreign journalists–as well as those from Hong Kong and Macau–obtain official permission for interviews.

“We are encouraged to see an increasing number of reports by foreign journalists, which now cover every aspect of our society,” said Liu Jianchao, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, in an interview with the state-run China Daily. Liu stated that the new regulations gave the international press free access. “China has followed up on its pledge to facilitate the work of foreign journalists,” he said.

The changes, however, were mostly cosmetic, since journalists had widely ignored the old rules. Foreign journalists told CPJ that they still experienced surveillance and harassment, particularly while traveling outside of major cities. The continued imprisonment of Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong, China correspondent for the Singapore-based daily Straits Times, demonstrated the ongoing risk for foreign-employed journalists.

The gesture of increased freedom did not extend to the mainland press. Rather, leaders in Beijing displayed a heightened sensitivity in 2007, apparently related to the convening of the Communist Party’s National Congress in October to determine, among other things, a line of succession for Hu. Instead of relying on a technologically sophisticated system of information control, authorities chose their bluntest tool and shut down Internet communication in advance of the Congress. Public security officers in several regions shuttered Internet data centers, which house servers, for hosting even a single Web site deemed politically offensive, according to news reports and industry sources.

One of the country’s biggest data centers, Waigaoqiao, was ordered to suspend operations on September 3, affecting 30 servers, according to bloggers and industry sources. Other data centers were ordered to disable interactive features such as bulletin boards and comment sections during the Congress. Thousands of Web sites were shut down or became otherwise unavailable to Internet users.

The suppression of news and commentary belied statements Hu made in an address to the Congress, pledging to solicit public opinion in drafting new laws and to improve public oversight of governance. “We need to carry out democratic elections, decision-making, administration, and oversight in accordance with the law and safeguard people’s rights to be informed, to participate, to express, and to oversee,” Hu said.

Throughout the year, the people’s right to be informed took a backseat to official efforts to control public opinion, particularly as it was expressed online by the country’s 137 million Internet users. Hu emphasized the goal of Internet control at a Politburo meeting in January, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. The president urged the party’s Central Committee members “to build online fronts of ideology and public opinion … actively employing new technologies to strengthen positive propaganda, and fostering positive and uplifting mainstream public opinion.”

Three Internet journalists were imprisoned during the year, making for a total of 18 jailed for online work. In May, Sun Lin, a reporter for the U.S.-based Web news service Boxun News, and his wife, He Fang, were arrested in Nanjing. Sun, who used the pen name Jie Mu, had filed audio, video, and written news reports that were harshly critical of party and government policies. In one of his most recent reports, filed from Tiananmen Square, Sun described his unsuccessful efforts to gain accreditation to cover the Olympic Games. Both Sun and He were charged with illegally possessing weapons.

In June, journalist Qi Chonghuai was arrested after writing online posts that defended news reports of official corruption in the northern province of Shandong. Initially accused of holding a forged press card, Qi was later charged with extortion. Police severely beat the veteran journalist during interrogations, his lawyer told CPJ.

Another journalist was imprisoned for “inciting subversion of state authority,” a charge commonly used to suppress criticism of party or government leadership. Lü Gengsong was detained in the eastern city of Hangzhou in August. A freelance writer, political activist, and frequent contributor to overseas Web sites, Lü wrote about corruption, land grabs, organized crime, and human rights abuses. The day before he was detained, he reported the handing down of a two-year sentence in the trial of activist Yang Yunbiao. Authorities did not clarify the specific reasons for Lü’s arrest.

Party leaders continued to exert control over print and broadcast media by shuffling editorial personnel and by issuing frequent communiqués from central and local propaganda departments. All print and broadcast media in mainland China are state-owned and subject to the ideological whims of party cadres. The human cost of a policy of censorship encompasses far more than the journalists demoted, transferred, or jailed for crossing the line. In 2007, unreported or underreported topics included fatal coal mining accidents, rural protests against corrupt local officials, serious problems with the supply of food and drugs, and environmental degradation, as well as a host of trivial topics that local officials deemed embarrassing or inflammatory.

During the summer, a wave of international recalls and bans on Chinese exports brought a flurry of bad press worldwide. The deaths of American dogs and cats from tainted pet food from China prompted further inquiries into product safety. In the months that followed, importers discovered lead-paint-covered toys, toxic toothpaste, and contaminated seafood from China. In Panama, mass poisonings from cough syrup in 2006 were linked to an industrial solvent imported from a Chinese firm that mislabeled it as glycerine.

In Beijing, a July news report showing steamed buns being filled with cardboard pulp made international news. Within a few days, however, Beijing TV issued an apology, saying that the story was fabricated. The arrest of Zi Beijia, the freelancer responsible for the report, only raised more questions. Was Zi targeted for making up news, or because he exposed another embarrassing flaw in the food supply? In less than a month, Zi was sentenced to a year in prison for the unusual crime of  “infringing on the reputation of a commodity.”

Whatever the real reasons for Zi’s arrest, authorities used it as the basis for a further crackdown on the press. News reports on product quality became noticeably tamer, and in August the National Anti-Pornography and Anti-Piracy Office announced a fresh campaign to stop the spread of “illegal” news. Office Director Liu Binjie, who is also director of the General Administration of Press and Publication, vowed to increase inspections of newspapers and periodicals, and “to clamp down on illegal news coverage and eliminate any spread of false news,” according to Xinhua. Targeted publications included newspapers imported without authorization, “illegal political newspapers,” and “illegal military newspapers and magazines that leak state secrets.”

Prison conditions for journalists remained harsh. After visiting her husband in a prison in Hebei province, the wife of jailed Internet writer Guo Qizhen told CPJ that her husband was covered in bruises and that he was not receiving adequate medical attention for injuries that included a fractured right leg. Guo, who was detained in May 2006, is serving a four-year sentence for his online political writings. Internet journalist Zhang Jianhong, convicted of “subversion” in March 2007, described in a letter to his lawyer a debilitating nerve disorder that threatened to paralyze him. His appeals for release on medical grounds were denied, and Zhang continued to serve out his six-year term.

The revolving prison door also released some journalists in 2007, including New York Times researcher Zhao Yan, who was imprisoned for three years after the newspaper exposed a high-level leadership shift. Li Minying, former editor of the Guangzhou-based daily Nanfang Dushi Bao, was released in February after serving half of a six-year prison sentence handed out during a crackdown against the paper for its aggressive reporting. Li’s colleague Yu Huafeng remained in jail.

In November 2007, CPJ honored journalist Gao Qinrong with an International Press Freedom Award. Gao, a former reporter for Xinhua, was imprisoned in 1998 after exposing a scam irrigation project in his home province of Shanxi. He was sentenced to prison on a grab bag of trumped-up charges that included embezzlement and fraud. After his release in December 2006, he refused to stay silent, instead giving interviews about his experiences to international and domestic news organizations. In an interview with CPJ in Beijing, Gao said he hoped to get the charges against him erased so that he could return to work as a journalist.

“I am not afraid because my conscience is clear,” Gao said. “I didn’t do anything wrong or hurt anyone. Everything I do, I do under the sun.”