China’s broken promise

Jonathan Watts, China correspondent for the UK Guardian, offers an interesting first-person look into the hazards of reporting in China — and how China broke its vow to reporters there within 24 hours of wining its bid for the 2008 Olympics.

It felt as though China had broken its Olympic promises on day one. In securing the bid for Beijing to host the 2008 games, the city’s representatives pledged that the world media would enjoy full freedom to report all aspects of China.

Yet less than 24 hours after the Olympic flag was handed to Beijing’s mayor last Sunday, there I was – the Guardian’s China correspondent – detained and harassed for covering a peaceful demonstration that challenged the government’s position on Tibet.

My press pass was confiscated, and I was led away for questioning, accused of conducting an “illegal interview”. My colleague – Sami Sillanpaa, a Finnish journalist – had the memory card of his camera seized, erased and made permanently unusable.

Our interrogator told me he was in charge of foreign media and had the power to decide whether our visas would be renewed. He then accused us of “serious offences”. The implication was clear: “Do as I say or you could be kicked out of the country.” There was no physical abuse, but it was intimidation, pure and simple.

Watts looks at China’s history of harrassing reporters, and predicts if the CCP doesn’t live up to its pledge, the image they hope to display to the world in 2008 will be seriously marred.

He concludes, “…[W]ith the global spotlight now on China, such clumsy harassment ought to be made a thing of the past. Privately, government officials admit more transparency and greater press freedom are desirable. ‘Just give us time,’ they say. With four years until the Olympics, the countdown has started.”

Just give us time. Their favorite refrain.

The Discussion: 8 Comments

What China probably meant was, you have total freedom, except for ….

Then again, filming a demonstration in China is pretty much asking for problems, something about spots on a leopard not changing.

I wouldn’t get any hope up about the press situation in China changing, the media will be free to film the olympics and ask a few questions but you have to be insane if you think that they’re going to let probing journalists walk around the place asking about Tibet or civil rights.

Change and China are still very subjective words.

September 5, 2004 @ 11:40 pm | Comment

In a sense I agree with ACB – but Beijing’s going to see an unprecedented deluge of foreign journos, not all of whom are going to swallow what the government and Olympic committee tell them.

There’ll literally be ten thousand foreign journos in town for two weeks and they can’t control them all.

September 7, 2004 @ 12:13 am | Comment

A very good thing, in fact.

China needs to get used to nosy journos sooner or later. Maybe having the Olympic ones poking around the place will ‘desensitize’ them somewhat.

September 7, 2004 @ 1:35 am | Comment

This sort of stuff cuts both ways.

As 403200 mentioned, China has to be confident and stop being sensitive over every little bits. Of course being so authoritarian doesn’t help, but she has to start somewhere, and the 2008 Olympiad will be a good point.

Then, the foreign journalists have to ask themselves what are they looking for? Will they be deliberately seeking out every little issue to embarrass the Chinese govt, or will they report the Games and something they just happen to come across? Of course there will be those who specialize in the former.

I remember that when the Malaysians hosted the Commonwealth Games, the first thing a western TV station did was to rush down to the nearest slum and showed that the Malaysians had no rights to host the Games when there was poverty around. By contrast, the same TV station did no such thing in Atlanta during the Olympic Games, where there had been ample reports of the homeless and tramps being ‘trained’ out of that city with a free one-way ticket. Then in Sydney, the Aussies themselves were petrified when their own abysmally poor aboriginal community threatened to embarrass them during the Games – a deal was cut somehow, intertwined with the usual appeals of patriotism. But of course this was not presented in the TV in the way the Malaysian case had been.

Then there was a highly adored cricketer who complained on a western TV station that his toilet in the Commonwealth Games camp had no toilet paper, pronouncing authoritatively “It’s typically Malaysian”. He chose of course not to mention that he could have rang up the ‘House Keeping’ section to send the toilet rolls pretty pronto to his room. Of course the TV station latched on this single occurrence of omission by the housekeeping crew, and wasn’t about to conduct a survey to check whether this was a widespread phenomenon – never let facts get in the way of a juicy story.

Yes, the Chinese govt should be prepared for this sort of badmouthing as this type of news do titillate some viewers, who hold the view that certain countries ought not to host Games that would be more appropriately hosted by more advanced western nation.

That’s something that China has to learn to wear. I ask them to look at western politicians – apart from having hides like rhinos, they learn well the art of ‘spinning’ and ‘dissembling’ – besides, people have a short memory so ride the rough wave and get on with it. That’s how western pollies survive.

The Chinese authorities have 4 years to graduate with at least a diploma in public speaking, ‘spinning’ and handling TV interviews.

The last is interesting – from what I have observed, the western pollies’ technique/tactics would be to make their answers as long as possible with lots of repetitions and meanderings, and without pausing (good Taichi breathing techniques would help), because the typically western TV has a limited time for the interview – this way, it reduces the time available for embarrassing questions. Since the typical TV interviewer’s aim (admittedly not all) would be to ask as many ‘when-did-you-last-beat-your-wife’ type of questions as possible without really wanting any answer (never let facts get in the way of a juicy story), the pollies would insist on answering each question as slowly and comprehensively as possible, again to reduce time for the other questions.

They always call the interviewer by his/her first name, and say at the end “good to talk to you, Mike/Betty, etc”, rather than remain aloof and distantly cold . They attempt to portray a picture of sincerity, concern, humour, attention (at the appropriate moment of course) and avoid being frivolous and of course they are never politically incorrect.

Get some PR gurus and political risk managers. And stop overreacting. Reporters poking around is part and parcel of a multi media world.

September 7, 2004 @ 7:18 pm | Comment

It’s not important how you play when the rules are stacked against you.

China doesn’t get good press because the press comes from American Interests.

Until China is strong enough to establish its own international voice, it should just learn to live with it.

September 8, 2004 @ 1:50 am | Comment

there is no way to establish its own international voice when even the domestic voice is so stifled.
hopefully something could happen, but the way i see things, i am not placing any bets.
i am not a big democracy nut, and don’t think that china needs to hold elections right away or anything… but the one thing that i firmly believe in is that there needs to be openness in this media, no if’s and’s or but’s about it.

September 8, 2004 @ 2:32 am | Comment

Establishing a voice is a matter of investment. A matter of money and controlling shares.

Twenty years from now, when a significant portion of foreign media has stakes from or are controlled by Chinese corporations, international opinion of China would certainly improve.

Of course, for this to happen, China needs first to privatize and deregulate much of its media. Keep the strangling official hands off so that they become profitable.

So, in the end, I suppose I agree with you.

September 8, 2004 @ 2:43 am | Comment

Right now bloggers are the best voice in China, and our press isn’t exactly fully of honey and love.

One of China’s problems is that it can’t take critisism, even if it’s mild and true. It will denounce somebody for saying somethng that is so obvious that it becomes rediculous to say it didn’t go on, and even in the face of ridicule it will continue.

I agree that much of China’s press comes from America, and having seen a lot of international media and news in my time I can say that what is seen on US tv is a small fraction of the truth and is largely written to appeal to advertisers and domestic backers rather than people seeking an unabashed article (particularly in the case of Iraq and anti American the sentiments being expressed across the globe).

America sees China as a competitor right now and so is bound to be bias in its reporting, even if the reporters are not bias then the editors who are watching their corperate backers will be.

China is probably hoping that the human rights reports and the democracy actavists can be weeded out and isolated, or that they can be hidden among the many other voices and will get only minimum coverage in the news.

September 8, 2004 @ 3:36 am | Comment

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