Letter From China  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2006/January 2007

Letter From China   

How will China, hardly a bastion of press freedom, cope with an invasion of 20,000 foreign journalists for the 2008 Olympics?

By Kathleen E. McLaughlin
Kathleen E. McLaughlin(kemclaughlin@hotmail.com) covers China for the Bureau of National Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based publisher of legislative and regulatory news. She also writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Christian Science Monitor.     


Take the world's largest totalitarian regime, notoriously sensitive to criticism and particularly wary of foreign journalists. Add one of the world's largest sporting events and, with it, an estimated 20,000 of those same uncontainable foreign media types that the regime so dreads.

Just what the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games — China's first turn on the premier global sporting stage — will bring for journalists specifically, and open society in general, is a major question as preparations speed forward. Media groups warn that the potential for real problems does exist, and journalists should know the rules and risks and how to handle them. That is no easy task: The Beijing organizing committee for the games says the rules will not be issued until next year.

Press-averse China, consistently ranked as one of the world's worst anti-free-speech regimes and a leading jailer of journalists, has thrown itself headlong into enthusiastic preparations for the Beijing games. The Chinese capital is in the midst of a near-total physical overhaul, the old city dwarfed by billions of dollars' worth of glittering skyscraper construction set for completion by 2008. Locals are being encouraged to present a prettier face to the world, in part by learning a little English and ditching bad habits like spitting on sidewalks.

Still, China has a government-controlled domestic press and is known to be somewhat heavy-handed in dealing with foreign reporters who break its often ill-defined and ambiguous regulations. Beijing has given no signal that it plans to loosen or clarify those regulations, or make adhering to them any easier, before the Olympics arrive.

In September, the Chinese government added to the uncertainty by issuing new press regulations that require international media outlets to go through the state-run Xinhua news agency to distribute information to Chinese consumers. These rules, which could allow Xinhua to censor news distributed within China, may have been aimed at media companies hoping for a share of the potentially lucrative, untapped Chinese market.

Top Chinese officials have said the new restrictions will not affect Olympics reporting, and several observers interviewed for this piece say they don't expect the rules to have any real impact. But press freedom and human rights groups have decried the regulations as a tool to control the international press leading up to the 2008 games.

"It is outrageous that Xinhua, the Communist Party mouthpiece, should claim full powers over news agencies," Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières said in a statement. "Xinhua is establishing itself as a predator of both free enterprise and free information."

Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says the September rules don't "sound like a country gearing up for what would be for them a display of unprecedented press freedom in two years. The bottom line is this: China is putting in place drastic restrictions on the press. The country is headed in the exact opposite direction of what they are promising for the Olympic Games in 2008."

Though there are some very real concerns about access, most likely the meeting of the Chinese government and throngs of international media will create little mayhem, a few high-profile problems, a whole lot of frustrated reporters and photographers, and the potential for lasting troubles for their Chinese staff who stay on after the games end.

A few weeks after the new restrictions came out, officials from the Beijing Olympics committee promised unfettered travel in China and uncensored Internet access for foreign reporters covering the games. In addition, organizing committee officials announced at a news conference in the Chinese capital that journalists with Olympics credentials will not need Chinese visas to enter the country. That sounds encouraging, but the actual rules for media coverage of the games have not been written.

"We all have reason to be skeptical," says Charles Hutzler, Beijing bureau chief for the Associated Press, who has worked in China for more than 11 years and until recently was the AP's Olympics beat reporter. "China too often promises but then undermines the promises with bad regulations. One always has the sense with Chinese rules and laws that, to paraphrase Tom Waits, the large print giveth and the small print taketh away."

Ambiguity is often the essence of regulations governing foreign correspondents in Beijing. Foreign journalists "shall not engage in activities which are incompatible with their status or tasks, or which endanger China's national security, unity or community and public interests," say the rules issued to every international press agency by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ministry reserves the right to define what constitutes an infraction and to chastise or deport journalists who don't comply.

Vincent Brossel of the Asia-Pacific desk of Reporters Sans Frontières says these rules directly contradict Beijing's promises of a free and open Olympics. "By law and by practice, the Chinese government is restricting the work of the foreign reporters and correspondents," he says. His organization is urging the ministry to rewrite its rules.

Specific Chinese press regulations present more concrete problems. For example, accredited foreign media in China are required to apply for explicit permission from government offices before they can head anywhere in China to report. They're also required to seek permission for all interviews in Beijing and are routinely warned off interviewing people on the streets. Few journalists actually live by these rules, as the approval process takes days or weeks and authorities have been known to use them to stonewall potentially unflattering stories. As long as the articles aren't too explosive, authorities tend to overlook the violations.

It's a system that longtime correspondents here have learned to navigate with skill and some good humor, with many learning patience along the way. It works something like this: The regulations are rarely followed, but when a journalist draws the wrong kind of attention, the breach is used to remind correspondents the government is watching.

In one instance, when he was working for Britain's Independent newspaper, USA Today Beijing Bureau Chief Calum MacLeod was summoned to a government office and politely chastised for failing to get the government's permission to interview religious protesters for a story on the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement — protesters who were wanted by the Chinese government. Of course, there is no government agency in charge of media affairs for fugitive anti-government activists. Even if there were, it is unlikely that department would approve an interview request from an international correspondent planning to write about China's treatment of religious activists.

The circumstances are not always so amusing. John Pomfret, the Washington Post's West Coast correspondent, was one of two resident foreign reporters expelled from China after the deadly 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy crackdown, which he covered for the AP. When he was deported, Pomfret was charged with stealing state secrets and violating provisions of martial law, but he was allowed to return in 1998 as the Post's Beijing bureau chief.

Despite his personal experience, Pomfret is decidedly non-alarmist about the 2008 games, describing the Chinese government as having "moved spasmodically toward more openness and sophistication." Once unreachable, Chinese government agencies now routinely stage press briefings and take unfiltered questions from foreign correspondents.

Still, Pomfret cautions, "While the general trend was for more openness and sophistication, they do backtrack and do things like rough up correspondents, aggressively monitor and tail correspondents and other things designed to make life miserable."

Such tactics are bound to surprise, anger and frustrate visiting journalists from the United States and other free-press countries. MacLeod's scolding for failing to get permission to talk to protesters is only one among legions of detentions and reprimands experienced by veteran correspondents in China. Some are similarly ludicrous. Some are downright terrifying. Most reporters working here for any length of time eventually run afoul of the rules.

"We know that media want to use this opportunity to publish and give details to their audience about the situation in the country," Brossel says. "So what will happen when dozens or hundreds of journalists will cover social protests, Net dissidents, Tibet..or problems of corruption?" He adds: "It could be chaos, and the International Olympic Committee hasn't come up with a solution." The IOC declined to comment for this story.

CPJ's Dietz is even more concerned about Chinese journalists and citizens who work for foreign correspondents. If there are problems, he and others say, they undoubtedly have the most to lose. Foreigners can be expelled, hassled and warned. Locals who violate press laws can be imprisoned. "We see a real crackdown already in progress," Dietz says. "That situation does not appear likely to get better in the near future, including during the run-up to the Olympics."

Requiring reporters and photographers to get permission from local authorities before traveling around China could be one of the thorniest issues. When journalists cover the Olympic Games, sports are only part of the story. Television and print crews routinely comb the countryside, looking for features, personalities and hard news to give their audiences a better understanding of the host country.

That will no doubt be true in 2008, which will mark China's first-ever hosting of the event. Even if Beijing changes its policies, "The hills are high, and the emperor is far away," as the Chinese say in describing the age-old truth that federal mandates don't always translate into reality. Although the Olympics organizing committee is promising unrestricted domestic travel for journalists, one of the biggest problems in modern China is enforcing central government edicts at the provincial, city and village levels.

Consider another of MacLeod's ordeals. He was detained by police in Hebei Province for five hours while working on a story about police corruption. During his interrogation, he reached an official from the central government in Beijing on the phone. She told the local cops they should let him go. They continued their questioning until midnight, when MacLeod finally signed a confession and apology for breaking the rules. So while Beijing said one thing, the local authorities imposed their own will.

All this is not to say that journalists planning to cover the 2008 games should back away from U.S. and European traditions of aggressive investigative reporting, MacLeod and others add. China has been vigorously marketing its first Olympics, touting an image as a more open and tolerant society. Beijing is even calling this the "People's Olympics." "I hope they're demanding and ask for a lot," MacLeod says of his press colleagues. "That should be part of China's learning curve."

China will be prepared to manage, lead and otherwise guide international journalists toward a flattering portrayal of Beijing. In this environment, journalists should not expect to break earth-shattering news. "Cover the games and stop hoping for another Tiananmen," Pomfret counsels.

His advice to fellow reporters is blunt: Every country has rules, and these happen to be China's. "But all rules are made to be broken, and the Chinese, of all people, know this better than most."

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