Six months after the Beijing Olympics began on Aug. 8, 2008, Reporters Without Borders urges the Chinese authorities to release all the free speech activists and other citizens still being held in connection with the games.
In a press release dated Feb. 6 Reporters Without Borders USA says that at least 17 Chinese journalists, bloggers and free speech activists have been arrested since the games ended.
“For hundreds of Chinese, the Olympic legacy is measured in years in prison, administrative sanctions or police surveillance,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This is degrading for the Olympic movement, but the authorities still have a chance to change the situation by freeing those who were arrested for expressing their views in connection with the games.”
The press freedom organization added: “It is also deplorable that improved access to web sites, one of the few benefits derived from the Olympic Games, has been rolled back. It is clear that the Olympic human rights legacy promised by the government and the International Olympic Committee is extremely meager.”
Reporters Without Borders says French President Nicolas Sarkozy attended the opening ceremony of the games and submitted a list of political prisoners whose release he requested on the European Union’s behalf. None of them has been freed.
Sarkozy's list was headed by Hu Jia, who has been held for more than a year and is in poor health. The authorities continue to refer to him as a “criminal,” although he was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize.
Huang Qi, who was arrested in June 2008 for writing about the victims of the previous month’s earthquake in Sichuan, is still awaiting trial and his family still has not been allowed to see him.
Writer and lawyer Yang Maodong continues to be mistreated in the southern province of Guangdong. Fellow lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who has been sick with acute diarrhea for months, was denied an early release on medical grounds by the authorities in Shandong last month.
Bu Dongwei, a member of the Falun Gong movement, has not been released from the re-education-through-work camp where he has been held since June 2006.
Yang Chunlin, one of the initiators of the “We want human rights not Olympic Games” campaign, is still detained in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, where he has to work 14 hours a day in a prison factory.
Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek continues to be held in Sichuan province, serving a life sentence on a charge of “inciting separatism.”
The failure of the European Union’s attempts to get China to release prisoners of conscience should induce the EU to adopt a new strategy. Reporters Without Borders calls for repeated joint requests for their release, requests that are not just made in the course of the discreet meetings that are taking place as part of the EU-China dialogue on human rights.
Foreign Press Reassured
Reporters Without Borders mentions several incidents involving foreign journalists since the Olympic Games. The most serious was undoubtedly an attack on a crew from the Belgian TV station VRT while they were doing a report on the AIDS epidemic in Henan province. The journalists were beaten and robbed by thugs who had clearly been put up to it by the local authorities.
Severe punishments have been imposed on some of the dissidents who spoke to foreign reporters about the Olympic Games. Wang Guilan was sentenced in August by a court in Hubei province to 15 months of reeducation through work.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) recorded 178 cases of foreign journalists being obstructed in the course of their work in 2008, 63 of them during the Olympic Games period.
“Foreign journalists are still relatively free to work thanks to the renewal of the more relaxed regulations, but they still encounter obstacles when they try to cover dissident activities, the situation of companies affected by the economical crisis and the situation in Tibet,” Reporters Without Borders says.
Very few journalists obtain permission to visit Tibet. The French daily Le Monde’s correspondent requested accreditation for Tibet, but was refused. The few foreign journalists who do get into Tibet are closely watched and around 10 Tibetans have received prison sentences since the end of the games for sending information abroad.
Reporters Without Borders says it takes note of a decision, announced at the end of January, to transfer oversight of foreign news agencies to the State Council’s Information Office. The existing policy, supervised by the government news agency Xinhua, did not allow the Chinese media unrestricted access to foreign news agency reports. Reporters Without Borders urges the authorities to allow all international news agencies, not just those selling financial news, to offer content to the Chinese media.
Chinese Media Push the Limits
Reporters Without Borders says the Propaganda Department shows no sign of relaxing its control of the Chinese media, but several of them have nonetheless been pushing the limits of censorship and self-censorship. The Beijing News daily, for example, ran a report about the way some of the people organizing petitions have been forcibly confined in psychiatric institutions. Similarly, the media has given extensive coverage to the contaminated milk powder story after having been prevented from doing so until the end of August because of the Olympic Games.
The magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu was threatened by the Propaganda Department in November but the authorities did not go ahead with purging the staff after an outcry from the journalists.
In January the government announced that it was going to spend an additional 17 billion yuan (2 billion euros) on state media such as CCTV and the news agency Xinhua. Propaganda Department chief Liu Yunshan said: “It has become urgent for China to ensure that our communication capacity matches our international prestige.”
Reporters Without Borders says the government’s grip over the media has prompted reactions from intellectuals. A score of university professors and lawyers issued a call on Jan. 12 to “Boycott CCTV, reject the brainwashing.”
Just as Many Journalists and Bloggers Still in Prison
Reporters Without Borders says the Olympic Games did not in any way help to obtain the release of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents. In all, 79 are currently detained in China, many of them in appalling conditions.
The journalist Qi Chonghuai, for example, was beaten by fellow inmates in a prison in the eastern city of Tengzhou in November. He is also being forced to do difficult work in a mine run by the prison authorities.
Reporters Without Borders says that journalists continue to be arrested. Guan Jian, a reporter with Wangluo Bao (Network News), a Beijing-based weekly, was arrested on Dec. 1 while looking into allegations of corruption in the real estate sector in Taiyuan, in the central province of Shanxi.
A CCTV reporter, Li Min, was placed in detention in the same province four days later.
She was accused of corruption by the provincial authorities, including prosecutor He Shusheng, after she had accused the prosecutor of “abuse of authority” during a TV report on the air. In both cases, the threat came from political or judicial provincial officials who refused to permit any attempt by the national press to take an interest in the murkier side of their activities.
Blogger Guo Quan was arrested in mid-November in the eastern province of Jiangsu by police who said his articles were too radical. Prior to his arrest, he had called for the creation of a netizens party to combat online censorship. He had also announced his intention to sue the U.S. company Google for ensuring that a search for his name on its Chinese-language search engine yielded no results.
As Hu Jia’s wife Zeng Jinyan, herself a blogger, said in a message thanking the European parliament for awarding Hu the Sakharov Prize: “There are now a great many exceptional people and people of goodwill in Chinese society who are going to great lengths to find ways to make the real situation in China known, and to express deeply-felt views, and the Internet is providing them with a very interesting platform. But unfortunately there is sometimes a very high price to be paid for this.”
Cracking Down on Dissidents
Wang Rongqing, one of the leaders of the banned China Democracy Party and the editor of a dissident magazine, was sentenced to six years in prison for “subverting state authority” by a court in the eastern city of Hangzhou on January 8. He was arrested a few weeks before the start of the Olympic Games. One of his relatives told Reporters Without Borders that his state of health was very worrying.
The repression has above all focused on the initiators of Charter 08, a call for democratic reforms that has been signed by 8,100 Chinese. One of its authors, leading free speech activist Liu Xiaobo, was arrested shortly after its release on December 9 and is still being held in a Beijing police residence. In all, more than a hundred signatories throughout China have been detained, questioned or threatened by the political police.
Investigating the human rights situation during the Olympic Games period is not very safe either. In January, Beijing-based activist Wang Debang was interrogated for six hours by the Public Security Bureau, which accused him of helping to write a human rights report. His home was searched and his computer was confiscated.
Wang Lianxi, a worker who spent 18 years in prison for his role in the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989, was confined against his will in a psychiatric hospital before the Olympic Games for fear he would stage demonstrations in Beijing.
Internet Censorship—Back to the Bad Old Ways
The authorities unblocked access to dozens of news and human rights web sites when the foreign journalists who had come to Beijing to cover the Olympic Games began to complain. But once the games were over, the government bodies in charge of controlling the Internet gradually eliminated this meager “Olympic legacy.” The Reporters Without Borders web site was one of the first to be blocked again. The Amnesty International site became inaccessible again in January.
Access to the Chinese-language news sites of Asiaweek (http://www.yzzk.com/cfm/main.cfm), Mingpao (http://www.mingpao.com/), Voice of America (VOA) and the Hong Kong (http://www.hk.youtube.com) and Taiwanese (http://www.tw.youtube.com) versions of the video-sharing web site YouTube were blocked in December.
The leading international news media have also seen their web sites blocked again. The Chinese-language sites of the BBC World Service, Radio France Internationale and the New York Times are all now inaccessible.
Foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao explained that “some web sites” had content that “violates Chinese laws,” adding that “I hope the web sites will practice self-restraint in terms of what they publish.”
A few weeks later, on January 5, the government introduced new regulations aimed at combating “vulgar content” and “protecting privacy”—goals which are nonetheless being used as a screen for imposing additional restrictions on free expression online. More than 90 web sites have already been blocked, some of which have nothing to do with porn or invasion of privacy, Reporters Without Borders says.
The police closed the Chinese web site Zhongguo Nongchanpin Shichang Zhoukan in September because of its articles on the contaminated milk power. The Hi.baidu.com web site was blocked by the authorities in November. Finally, the political blog portal Bullog.cn was closed in January.
But some Internet users have fought back. Wang Zhaojun, for example, filed a complaint before the supreme court in January against Sina.com, a leading portal, for closing down his blog after he posted an article about the changes in Chinese society to come in 2009.
Despite the relentless censorship, China’s 210 million Internet users have been the protagonists or witnesses of a great deal of online activity in which, for example, Sanlu’s contaminated milk powder and a strike by taxi drivers have widely commented upon.
Would-be Protesters Still Threatened
Reporters Without Borders says police continue to prevent peaceful protests.
According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Liu Xueli, a campaigner against forced evictions who had asked for permission to demonstrate in a designated place in August, has been sentenced to 21 months of reeducation through work. And Fuzhou-based petitioner Ji Sizun is still being held for wanting to demonstrate in Beijing during the games.
Ye Guozhu was meanwhile released in October after accepting compensation for the demolition of his home during the renovations carried out in Beijing in the run-up to the Olympic Games. He was to have been freed at the end of July, but the authorities decided to keep him in detention while the games were going on.
And the International Olympic Committee’s take?
“Exceptional games,” IOC president Jacques Rogge said at a news conference just before the closing ceremony. “The biggest intangible legacy of the games, and also a very important one, is that through the games, China has been scrutinized by the world, China has opened up to the world.”
New China Rules for Hong Kong Journalists Roll Back Freedoms
Meanwhile, according to a separate Reuters report by James Pomfret, China on Feb. 6 announced new rules for Hong Kong and Macao journalists that were criticized as a “rolling back of media freedoms” in a year filled with sensitive anniversaries for China's Communist party leaders.
The report says that in new regulations issued by Beijing, reporters from Hong Kong and Macao can travel to China for interviews only with prior consent, and would have to inform authorities before each trip. Tam Chi-keung, Chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association told Reuters, "This is returning to the old ways … this can't fulfill the actual needs of Hong Kong and Macao journalists … Nor can it fulfill the actual needs of Hong Kong and Macao people's right to know about news in China."
Xinhua state agency explained that Beijing was only "extending temporary regulations for the 2008 Olympics that had allowed greater freedom for journalists from outside the mainland."