China’s New Crackdown

For a while many foreign correspondents thought authorities were “killing the chicken to scare the monkey.” That’s a Chinese proverb meaning one target is attacked in order to intimidate another. When we saw our Chinese contacts harassed, detained, physically assaulted and sentenced to prison over the past year, it was tempting to assume they’d been “soft targets” for a regime intent on warning us, the international media, to stop sticking our noses into sensitive topics.

But we were being naive. Beijing’s goals are far more sweeping than the chicken-and-monkey metaphor could encompass. Today’s targets are not just domestic media and foreign correspondents, not just our Chinese sources and local assistants. Less than two years before Beijing hosts the 2008 Summer Olympics, authorities are in the midst of a concerted—and disturbing—effort to slam stricter controls on what Chinese know and how they know it. The aim of the recent crackdown is not only to silence individual “troublemakers,” but also to beef up institutional controls over the free flow of information. This is a grim portent for the 2008 Games, when some 20,000 international journalists are expected to descend on Beijing. “These latest measures sound a wake-up call to the international community that a closed, state-controlled Olympics is on the horizon,” warns Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, an NGO.

The old methods were bad enough, when Beijing targeted reporters working for international media, such as The New York Times’s Chinese researcher Zhao Yan and Straits Times correspondent Ching Cheong, who recently were slapped with prison terms of three years on fraud charges and five years for alleged spying, respectively. Or when the government targeted grass-roots heroes battling local repression, such as blind peasant activist Chen Guangcheng, who was sentenced in August to more than four years in prison on charges of mobilizing a mob to disturb traffic. His real transgression appears to have been exposing local authorities in Shandong who illegally forced villagers to undergo late-term abortions and sterilization as part of an overzealous family-planning campaign.

It was bad enough when Beijing went after feisty lawyers like Chen’s legal team, members of whom were beaten, interrogated, and threatened by having their car overturned by thugs. Or free-speaking bloggers or Web outlets, such as the Baixing magazine’s Web site, shut down in early September after it reported the beating death of a villager who protested against grass-roots officials in a land dispute.

Today’s targets now include those people who are part of the free flow of information itself.

They include judges and other court officials, who last week were publicly warned in a report by the state-run Xinhua news agency that “severe sanctions” would ensue if they violated a ban on talking directly to the press.

They include mapmakers, who were recently accused through Xinhua of threatening national security with their unauthorized surveys.

They include corporate honchos of financial-information vendors, such as Reuters and Bloomberg News, who awoke to some unpleasant news on Sept. 10. Without prior consultation, Xinhua unveiled sweeping media regulations consolidating its role as the “gatekeeper” for all information, data and graphics provided by foreign news organizations to domestic Chinese customers. This monopoly now bars foreign agencies from distributing content to Chinese recipients except through Xinhua or its affiliates. It gives the news agency authority to “delete offending material” from reports that touch on sensitive topics, such as “sovereignty” (meaning Taiwan), ethnic “feelings” (Tibet), social order (the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement and other protests) or “evil cults” (the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement).

Chinese officials insist these regulations require “no changes” in the way foreign correspondents report in China—and that may well be the case. However, Xinhua’s new regulations negate a 1996 agreement that had allowed some foreign agencies to distribute financial and market news directly to Chinese clients, including banks and brokerage firms. Before that pact, Xinhua had tried to impose stricter content controls—and to take 15 percent off the top of the vendors’ revenues. But Western governments and trade negotiators opposed Xinhua’s power grab; after tooth-and-nail negotiations that stretched over two years, Xinhua ultimately backed down.

That hard-won compromise is now defunct. U.S. and European diplomats last week protested against Xinhua’s gambit, as they’d done in 1996. But can it be undone this time? Today the provision of real-time financial data is a booming industry, and Xinhua hopes to elevate its market share by “leapfrogging” ahead with its own financial information and data services, as Xinhua president Tian Congming put it not long ago.

Xinhua—which publicly describes itself as the “mouth and throat” of the Chinese communist party—is both competitor to international news providers and the regulator of its competitors. In a recent speech, Tian vowed to eclipse Reuters and Bloomberg in China—and revealed that he’d asked aides to download and scrutinize an entire week of Reuters’ information so that he could “understand its look and feel.”

For a regime obsessed with controlling what appears in the media, Beijing can be strangely blind to how badly its heavy-handed tactics tarnish its image abroad. The new Xinhua regulations broke at an awkward moment for Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who had just left China for a trip to Britain, Germany and other European nations. During a 21-hour visit in the U.K., Wen was peppered with queries about the media restrictions and was compelled to answer journalists’ questions twice to clear up what he called “misunderstandings.” Wen insisted that Beijing’s policy towards foreign media remains unchanged, and that commercial, financial and economic information would flow freely without obstruction.

Although China’s media environment is more freewheeling than it was 15 years ago, Xinhua’s coup is the latest in a series of moves to strengthen legal and regulatory controls over the flow of information. Earlier this year, authorities unveiled a draft law that could severely punish reporters and editors who attempt to cover emergency situations—including natural disasters, industrial accidents and health epidemics—without permission from local officials. Beijing insists that the law’s main thrust is to punish local bureaucrats who distort information in emergencies. However, many journalists were alarmed to learn that violations could land a reporter (from either domestic or international media) with a hefty $12,000 fine. Against this backdrop, perhaps it’s no surprise to hear reports that President Hu Jintao had praised the regimes of Cuba and North Korea for their ability to keep media under tight control.

For the Olympics, Chinese authorities insist they’ll live up to their promises of free and open press coverage. Even so, how long will it last? Will authorities relax some curbs for, say, a couple of months during the games, but keep the media muzzled before and afterwards?

If this kind of compartmentalization is Beijing’s strategy, it may not work. The Olympic experience cannot be excised from the life of a host nation. Nor can athletics skirt sensitive issues completely. On Aug. 28, for instance, Beijing-based Italian sports journalist Francesco Liello was detained in Liaoning province while he was photographing—of all things—an empty running track. Liello, who writes for La Gazetta dello Sport, had traveled to Liaoning to look into a doping scandal reported by Chinese media. He couldn’t find the sports official he’d wanted to interview, so he decided to snap photos in an empty stadium. Local officials apprehended him, compelled him to delete about 20 photos from his digital camera, then turned him over to police because he was, they said, “a criminal.”

His offense was simply traveling to Liaoning to report, without permission from the provincial government. Authorities even told him he wouldn’t have been detained if he’d been a tourist, not a journalist, Liello says. It’s business as usual for many grass-roots apparatchiks—and the sort of thing you might expect in Havana or Pyongyang. It’s hard to imagine the Castro brothers or Kim Jong Il hosting the Summer Olympics. Let’s hope Beijing manages to distinguish itself from that crowd well before 2008.