China: Will Olympics Free Media?

International media will soon feel the “Olympic effect.” Almost as soon as Beijing won its bid to host the 2008 Summer Games, it was clear the Olympic phenomenon would be felt in China far beyond the realm of sports. After years of frenetic preparation and construction of Olympic sites, Beijing residents already have seen their city transformed, their sense of national pride burnished, their connection with the outside world enhanced.

Now, with the unveiling of new regulations Friday, visiting international media will have greater freedom to travel and report during the 2008 Olympics and the run-up to the Games, from Jan. 1, 2007, to Oct. 17, 2008. The most important aspect of the nine-point regulations is article 6, which states that “to interview organizations or individuals in China, foreign journalists need only to obtain their prior consent.”

This article supersedes—for the period of its validity—some of the most stringent restrictions that have bedeviled foreign journalists in China for decades. Ever since I began reporting in China in the late ‘70s, international media have had to accept the existence of regulations forbidding us from conducting interviews, or traveling for reporting purposes, without prior permission from local government authorities.

At times in the past, recalcitrant grass-roots officials even hindered foreign correspondents from interviewing other consenting foreigners without official permission, a ludicrous interpretation of already archaic rules. (Current regulations governing the activities of foreign correspondents in China date back to 1990, and will remain in force except where they differ from the new rules, in which case the new articles prevail.)

The true value of the new rules will become clear with their implementation. At a packed press conference Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao sought to allay concerns about potential loopholes. "It is crystal clear that as long as the interviewee agrees, you can do your reporting," he said.

With the unveiling of the new regulations, Beijing is ticking off another item on its “must do” list for the Olympics. When city officials bid for the 2008 Games, they promised: "There will be no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games." But even as the construction of Olympic venues and city infrastructure reached skyward with startling speed, International Olympic Committee officials and foreign media voiced concerns about whether the government would live up to its promise.

With tens of thousands of international journalists expected to flock to China for the Games and their run-up, the government seemed to be retrogressing over the past year. It cracked down on domestic media, boosted policing of the Internet and jailed New York Times   researcher Zhao Yan (a Chinese national) and Singapore’s Straits Times correspondent Ching Cheong (a Hong Kong passport-holder) on charges of fraud and espionage, respectively.

Indeed, on the same day the new regulations were announced, an appeals court decided to uphold the three-year prison sentence for Zhao, who was detained after The New York Times published a 2004 article predicting—accurately—that as a result of top-level power tussles, former president Jiang Zemin would step down from his influential position as head of the powerful Central Military Commission. Although the newspaper denied Zhao was involved in that report, he was initially accused of disclosing state secrets, a charge that was ultimately dismissed. (The fraud charge, which Zhao denies, alleges he attempted to bribe a rural official, and dates back to an incident before his employment by the Times.) Last week, a Beijing higher court upheld the five-year prison sentence for Ching Cheong, who was convicted of spying for Taiwan—a charge he denies.

With such realities as a backdrop, the new regulations can be fully assessed only once they’re tested at the grass roots. There are potential loopholes. The new rules relate to “foreign journalists covering the Beijing Olympic Games and related matters in China.” Will some jittery local apparatchiks interpret this to mean sports journalists and sports events only? Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu spelled out a broader interpretation. He said, "Foreign journalists will not limit their activities to the Games themselves. They will also cover politics, science, technology and the economy … The 'related matters' ... actually expands the areas on which foreign journalists can report."

Another gray area relates to coverage of protests, civil disturbances or industrial accidents—all situations in which local officials not only establish security cordons but tend to stifle media coverage. "There might be situations where social order was at stake where there would be controls on all journalists, including foreigners," Liu said during Friday’s press conference, without elaboration. And there is draft legislation being studied which would require both domestic and foreign media to obtain local officials’ permission first before reporting in “emergency situations,” under penalty of hefty fines if they do not.

Then there’s the fact that the new rules are slated to expire on Oct. 17, 2008, a month after the end of the 13th Paralympic Games. Foreign Ministry officials have declined to speculate whether the new regulations will be extended. Yet reverting back to antiquated rules hammered out in 1990 would be an egregiously retrograde step. If the new regulations are implemented successfully through the end of the Olympic season, the Chinese government may find it impossible to put the toothpaste back into the tube.