China unsure on reporting rules

At the Foreign Ministry’s weekly press conference today, Jiang Yu, the ministry’s spokeswoman, left hanging for now whether or not China will continue allowing foreign journalists to travel around China without asking permission from the government, or whether they will be allowed to interview anyone who agrees to speak with them. The new relaxed rules were temporarily put into place in January 2007, as part of China’s pledge to allow reporters unrestricted freedom during the Olympic Games. China had made the broad promise of unrestricted coverage in 2001, when it was bidding to win this summer’s Games.

AP reported Jiang as saying, “I think when the time comes, we will tell everyone what the arrangement will be. But I want to reiterate to everyone that the spirit of opening up will continue.”


The rules had always been a mixed bag, frankly, and the ambivalence of Jiang’s statement — basically she said the final decision to continue them or end them will be announced in October, when they were due to expire a month after the Paralympic Games were over — is indicative of that. The rules had long been ignored by foreign journalists, who developed their own game planes over the years for getting around the restrictions. When the crunch came during the ethnic rioting in Tibet in March, the government did not hesitate to clamp down on travel to Tibet or the adjacent regions where Tibetan populations were acting up. And while reporters did do a lot of man-on-the-street interviews during the games, there were a distressing number of reports of security personnel immediately talking to people who spoke with visiting reporters. Relaxed regulations or no relaxed regulations, China can still crack down on coverage when it wants.


China‘s policy makers are certainly digesting the lesson learned from the Games. From the outside, the biggest failure looks like its inability to deliver more fully on the media promises, the only real source of criticism. Video of police roughing up reporters and cameramen discredited any of the government’s attempts to deliver on its media promises. Blocked Web sites at the Olympics’ Main Press Center alienated many visiting reporters.


But it’s wrong to think of the government as a huge unchanging monolith, and there has already been discussion about the lessons learned from the Tibet crackdown. No less a person than President Hu Jintao told colleagues in a speech after the March crackdown that China’s official media can no longer rely on a blackout of outside coverage to control a story like Tibet. Instead, he said, the government must learn to control the story by encouraging state media to get ahead of the competition with an officially approved narrative. Whether the authorities will adhere to that line when put to the test with the next political challenge, whatever it might be, remains to be seen.