Shaun Randol: China Cracks the Door

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On August 8, China will fling open its doors to the world’s finest athletes and welcome, for the first time, a global Olympic audience. Yet, while the world’s attention is distracted by the glint of gold medals in Beijing, Chinese officials are doing whatever it takes to ensure that only the high polish of the Olympic spectacle makes it out through tightly controlled (i.e. censored) television, print, and online media.

In light of the recent protests in Tibet, a catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan Province, bus bombings in Kunming and Shanghai, and terrorist attacks in Xinjiang Province, Chinese officials are determined to build a façade of control—and cohesive national pride—lest unsightly and embarrassing political demonstrations be broadcast around the world. From banning select foreign entertainers to jailing Beijing dissidents, liberties are systematically being curtailed in what was once hoped to be China’s great coming out party.

To their credit, in expectation of public protests of one kind or another, officials have set aside three city parks in Beijing where demonstrators can air their grievances—a highly unusual gesture from the authoritarian government. There is a catch, of course. “The police will safeguard the right to demonstrate as long as protesters have obtained prior approval and are in accordance with the law,” said Liu Shaowu, director of Olympics security, during a news conference.

According to the law, citizens (it is unclear how internationals figure into this mix) must apply for a permit, in person, five days in advance of the scheduled protest. The application requires detailed information, including the topic of dissent, slogans to be used, and the expected number of demonstrators. Moreover, protests that are disruptive of “national unity,” “social stability,” security, or that advocate for ethnic minority separatism (read: Tibet, Xinjiang) will not be approved.

Despite the obstacles, could we see some action in the parks? Quoted in the New York Times, human rights lawyer and advocate Xu Zhiyong said, “As a first step toward opening up space for dissent, it is appropriate…. There should be many people who are willing to use this space, petitioners and people who have experienced injustice.” It will take a clever protest application, however, or outright subversive action, to hold a demonstration that does not violate the government’s tightly scripted rules. Protesting on issues such as pollution, political prisoners, religious freedom (Falun Gong), Tibet, Xingjian, shoddy construction of schools in Sichuan’s earthquake zone, democracy, freedom of speech in general, corruption, land rights, and other issues will, in all likelihood, be denied their moment in Beijing.

Indeed, Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas Bequelin criticized the protest zones, noting that local police may use video cameras to capture the images of would be demonstrators, and collect their names. “Chinese people know better than to go demonstrate in a protest zone during the Olympics,” he said, “except maybe a few people with nothing to lose. They know the risk of retribution is very high.” It is no wonder, then, that many Chinese believe the arrangement offered by the government to be nothing more than a fig leaf for foreigners. It remains to be seen how long these protest zones will remain—if at all—after the world leaves town.

While Beijing was establishing zones for free speech, however, it simultaneously announced restrictions on foreign journalists to access websites critical of the Chinese government. Many informational and often critical sites (like the BBC) have long been banned in China, but the websites of organizations such as Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders were added to the list.

Beijing Olympics spokesperson Sun Weide explained the sudden reversal: “Similar to practices in other countries, China is acting in accordance with its laws with regards to control of the Internet. According to Chinese law, the Internet cannot be used to transmit information that is illegal, such as promoting the evil cult Falun Gong or threatening national security. So we hope that the media will respect Chinese laws and regulations.”

International Olympic Committee officials admitted to complicity in this censorship, reversing a policy announced when Beijing was awarded the event. In response to the ambush, Reporters Without Borders issued a guide to journalists on how to get around Chinese censors by using proxy servers. In light of the uproar over these new policies, the Chinese relented by allowing access once again to sites like Amnesty International.

Limitations on freedoms of speech and press, unfortunately, should not come as a surprise. Since China’s “opening” to the world in 1978, media censorship and democratic curtailment has been a hallmark of China’s rise in international stature. The crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 is the most infamous example, but even in the past couple of years the government has violently disrupted many (surprisingly common) protests in secondary cities and rural areas.

Outside Beijing, thousands of Chinese citizens regularly gather to demonstrate against corruption, and living and working conditions; in June of this year in Guizhou Province, for example, nearly 30,000 people protested a botched investigation into the death of a local teenager. And more recently, grieving parents have coordinated mass protests amidst the rubble of earthquake ravaged Sichuan Province to express dissatisfaction with the corruption that led to substandard construction of their childrens’ schools. Indeed, the central government recorded almost 90,000 “mass incidents” in 2005, a number that has increased 1,350 percent since 1996. The common element in all of these demonstrations, however, is that they rarely challenge the central authority—and they happen far from Beijing.

The plan to stave off any potential uproar before the Olympics has long been in the works in China, and has often come from some surprising angles. Last year, for example, I traveled with six other students to China to do research as part of our graduate studies; this year only two students from the same program were given visas (the rest ended up in Nepal and elsewhere, or nowhere at all), and there are reports of other American students experiencing the same frustration. A major international anthropology conference scheduled for July was canceled in what appeared to be a case of pre-Olympic jitters, as well, and American sinologists have found themselves blacklisted, unable to get into China because they have written on topics critical of or sensitive to security policies.

The Internet has long been a target of Chinese censorship. Known as the “Great Fire Wall,” tens of thousands of censors block and/or monitor websites ranging in subjects from government criticism to separatist movements to cartographic information to genocide in Darfur. In China, typing “Tiananmen Square,” for example, into common search engines (including Google and Yahoo!) retrieves only government approved information on the 1989 “incident.” Censored information in the Western media can be obtained by using proxy servers and sites, a strategy regularly employed by Chinese students, but these tactics are inconvenient and often unreliable.

To show just how far the central government is willing to go to ensure Beijing and other major cities do not become a hotbed of unauthorized excitement, Chinese officials have even taken to buying off their citizens in hopes of preventing mass demonstrations. The government is pressing hush money into the hands of grieving parents angry over the shoddy construction of schools leveled in the Sichuan earthquake. (Approximately 10,000 children died when 7,000 classrooms collapsed.)

This scheming comes on the heels of what was supposed to be, according to Xinhua News—a government controlled news organ—“a milestone regulation” in boosting governmental transparency. The recently issued decree requiring officials to release information that “affects the immediate interests of individuals and groups,” or that “should be known by the masses” was to go into effect on May 1, 2008. Instead, in Sichuan at least, there are indications of a cover up over the reports and information surrounding the supervision of the shoddy school construction. In an attempt to maintain hold over such communication, the law states that the release of information “should not cause social instability and threaten the safety of the state, the public, and the economy.” Indeed, the media has now been barred from reporting on this part of the earthquake story.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has sentenced a 54-year-old school worker to a year in a labor camp for posting photographs of collapsed schools on the web. Political dissidents and journalists are being monitored, put under house arrest, or jailed in the run-up to the Olympics. Prominent human rights activist (and international poster boy for China’s human rights abuses) Hu Jia was recently sentenced by a politically motivated court to three years in prison. Reporters Without Borders says that 29 journalists are currently imprisoned in China, while PEN America has identified 45 authors jailed.

It appears, then, that even though Chinese officials long ago promised the International Olympic Committee that they would ease media and political demonstration restrictions, they never really intended to do so. The unveiling of media/Internet censorship policies and the jailing of political prisoners and journalists within the past couple weeks seem to be part of a tightly calibrated plan. And with only days until the opening ceremonies, there is little chance of repercussion from the IOC or international community at large, short of a hastened—and unlikely—boycott.

For those outside Beijing (like me) yearning for the Chinese people to savor the experience of democratic freedoms, we are stuck in a quandary. On the one hand, do we hope for giant political protests in Beijing, a Tiananmen II perhaps, with a more peaceful outcome? It would be nice to see the masses stick one in the eye of an authoritarian regime. On the other hand, do we hope that protests are consciously minimized, in hopes that the masses show their government that it is permissible to allow measures of democratic freedom, all in the hope of permanently embedding the temporary protest allowances in Beijing’s parks? Either way, those of us watching the events from our living rooms may not see anything on television; officials at one point discussed barring all live broadcasts from Tiananmen Square during the Olympics.

One month before Beijing’s recent slate of restrictions, a colleague of mine from Xinhua News visited me in New York (courtesy of the U.S. State Department). Strolling through the city, we held lengthy discussions on the state of press freedoms in China. We talked about what I saw as a lessening of restrictions on domestic and foreign media (she had done extensive reporting on the Sichuan earthquake) and I wondered whether the ease of restrictions would remain after the Olympics ended and the world went home.

“I think so,” she said. “I hope so…” Let the games begin.

Shaun Randol, a former intern at the World Policy Institute, recently received his M.A. in International Affairs from the New School and is an independent research consultant.

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