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China has eased restrictions on the press in time for the 2008 Olympics, but it is unclear whether local officials…

China has eased restrictions on the press in time for the 2008 Olympics, but it is unclear whether local officials will follow a central mandate.

From the Winter 2007 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 40.

By Catherine Spratt

Foreign journalists in China have long had to maneuver around nearly insurmountable roadblocks set up by the government in order to do their jobs. When campaigning to bring the Olympics to Beijing in 2008, the Chinese government pledged to remove these hurdles. Bowing to international pressure to follow through with its promise, the government recently lifted some restrictions on foreign journalists.

In December, the Chinese government issued a decree saying that from Jan. 1, 2007, until Oct. 17, 2008, journalists from other countries will be able to freely travel around most of China and will be able to conduct interviews without having to get official government permission. They will also be allowed to hire Chinese citizens to assist them in their reporting duties.

Previously, foreign reporters had to get permission from the government before going on newsgathering trips outside of Beijing. They also had to get official permission in order to legally conduct interviews.

In reality, few foreign correspondents actually followed these rules all the time. The process of applying for permission could take weeks, months or years, and permission was often denied. Furthermore, even if permission to interview was granted, often a government official would be present during the interview. This made interviewees reluctant to talk openly, or even at all.

“Skirting current press laws in China is something foreign correspondents are forced to do every day at very basic levels,” said Kathleen McLaughlin, who covers China for the Bureau of National Affairs and also writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and The Christian Science Monitor. “The government knows rule-bending happens and tolerates it to a certain degree, some proof that they are more open than they were 10 or even five years ago.”

Sometimes the government looks the other way when journalists break the press regulations. But other times, foreign journalists are detained and questioned for hours.

“If these new rules are put in play as described, they could be a real breakthrough,” McLaughlin said. “But that’s a big ‘if.'”

Chinese journalists must abide by an even stricter code than the one governing foreign correspondents, and run the risk of being jailed for months or even years when they break the regulations.

“Local journalists are the people who remain most vulnerable,” said Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “They are the ones most likely to feel the weight of the government.”

The loosened regulations on foreign correspondents do not apply to Chinese journalists. But increased freedom for foreign journalists eventually could lead to greater freedom for local reporters.

Bruce Gilley, a political studies professor at Queens University in Canada, said that having a two-tiered system where foreign journalists have greater freedom than their Chinese counterparts creates a “strong sense of resentment among domestic media because they are assumed to be second-class citizens in their own country.”

This resentment “becomes a basis for agitation for more press freedoms for Chinese journalists.”

International pressure

When China was competing to host the Olympics, many groups protested that China should be denied the opportunity because of its human rights record. In order to win the bid, the Chinese government had to promise that reporters would be able to work as freely in China as they did in Greece, Australia, and other Olympic host countries.

Since then, groups such as Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, and the Committee to Protect Journalists have pushed to make sure that China follows through with its pledge.

“The central government has obviously made this decision under international pressure,” Dietz said.

The difficulty of enforcing oft-flouted regulations in the midst of the media frenzy surrounding the Olympics also may have played a role in the government’s decision.

“Maybe the government thought that the old regulations were unenforceable, that the propaganda department and various state bodies wouldn’t have been able to enforce it,” said Ashley Esarey, a professor at Middlebury College who focuses on Chinese politics and media freedom.

Additionally, issuing the decree may have been a strategic decision designed to give foreign journalists a more favorable impression of the Chinese government.

Bruce Gilley said that the old restrictions “created bad feelings. Reporters who come to China with a determination not to become negative and cynical often quickly become critics of the system. That winds up leading to more critical news reporting. This may have been a strategic move to lead to better coverage.”

McLaughlin agreed. “I genuinely believe they want journalists to have a positive experience in China, especially during the Olympics, so we will report positive things to audiences back home,” she said.

Local enforcement

The new regulations for foreign journalists supposedly went into effect on Jan. 1. But it is too soon to say what effect the changes in the rules will actually have.

“Whether it will be fully accepted and carried out on the lower level has yet to be seen,” Dietz said. “The central government often has more progressive policies than the local officials.”

Even though the central government issued a decree allowing foreign reporters to travel and interview freely, local governments may not go along with it. The central government may not sufficiently get the word out, and even if it does, the local governments may be reluctant to allow journalists so much freedom.

“The main hurdle, even if the central government follows through, will be getting the word out to provinces, cities and towns,” McLaughlin said. “Most journalists who encounter problems here with the police and other government officers do so on a very local level. One of China’s biggest problems in several areas is enforcing central government doctrine at local levels. Much depends on how much effort the central government puts into spreading the word about new press rules, stopping detainments and eliminating other barriers to newsgathering.”

A Beijing correspondent for The Economist ran into this problem shortly after the looser rules went into effect in January.

The reporter was investigating a cover-up in Henan province about a botched blood collection drive during which thousands of people were infected with HIV.

According to an article in The Economist, local officials tried to force the reporter to leave. After he refused and called the foreign ministry in Beijing, the local authorities allowed him to stay and continue investigating.

According to Esarey, this is a “classic problem in Chinese politics. There are various levels of government trying to sweep dirt under the rug.”

John Pomfret, a journalist for The Washington Post who spent seven years covering China, also noted that local officials could present problems. He predicted a possible “push back from local officials” who might “send the Western press packing.”

However, the Chinese government is highly interested in presenting China in a positive light during the Olympics. This could mean that the government will be more careful about not acting in ways that would generate negative press attention.

“In the run-up to the Olympics, China will be relatively cautious about not being as abusive as in the past,” Dietz predicted.

Esarey said the Olympics will expose China to a closer examination by foreign countries than “it has ever experienced before.”

“China is nervous but also hopeful,” Esarey said. “It very much wants to give people a good impression of China. In the past, the government tried to do so by micromanaging, but is now experimenting with more freedoms.”

Whether any press freedoms that may be gained during this time will remain in effect after the Olympics is an open question.

“There has been some indication that if the extra freedom doesn’t lead to unmanageable problems, the freedom will continue,” Esarey said. “If this is successful, the government may move forward with more freedoms. If not, if the Communist Party is embarrassed, they may clamp down. Hopefully, this will be the time that will lead to more openness and not less.”