The Beijing Olympics will launch on Aug. 8, 2008, one year from today. At once a coming-out party for China and a source of great national pride, the games have also raised hopes that Beijing might honor its promises to allow unfettered press freedom and even permit greater freedom of speech for the Chinese people. But as we enter the home stretch before the games, the prospects for media and free expression reform are not good.
This spring, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television's Propaganda Administration Department announced a ban on, among other topics, discussing whether the media should be free. Franz Kafka would have smiled at this stunning act of auto-censorship, which means that Chinese citizens now can't even publicly argue in favor of a controlled press.
The state broadcast authorities also imposed new regulations on performing artists and Internet users to ensure the promotion of only a "healthy socialist culture." Those regulations mandate licenses for performers, and require Internet service providers and Webmasters to track all visitors to their sites. In April, after three months of secrecy, those same authorities finally made public the government's new "Regulations on Government Information Openness." Despite being described by some as China's equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, the regulations actually continue to give the government plenty of latitude in blocking the publication of information, even about crucial matters of public interest such as health scares or natural disasters.
The government has publicly recommitted itself to allowing foreign journalists unfettered geographical access through the 2008 Summer Olympics. But old habits die hard. The March guidelines forbid those very same journalists from reporting on corruption issues, legal reform and efforts by activists to protect human rights. They also prohibit coverage of past political catastrophes, such as the Cultural Revolution or the Anti-Rightist Movement. The 1989 Tiananmen Massacre is so taboo it couldn't even be discussed in the meeting to decide what was taboo.
Given the recent crackdowns on journalists, activists and the Internet, all of this is sadly predictable. It remains to be seen whether and to what extent these directives are implemented. Journalists who try to expose official corruption know better than anyone else what punishments can await them if they do their jobs properly. China continues to jail more journalists than any country in the world, often for reporting on abuses committed by local authorities.
Working for a foreign newspaper is not necessarily safer either. Take the case of Zhao Yan, a Chinese researcher for the New York Times, now serving a three-year sentence on fraud charges -- a punishment imposed for his exposés of local officials' malfeasance and internal CCP politicking. Nor are foreign journalists immune from this kind of treatment. Last week, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China issued a report detailing more than 157 incidents of intimidation of sources, detentions, surveillance, official reprimands and violence in the first six months of 2007.
Meanwhile, the Internet, the force that was supposed to universally promote free expression, remains a minefield in China. Some Web sites are blocked, terms are banned and café computer keyboards are equipped with monitoring software that detects searches on terms like "democracy movement." It's a means of limiting what people can talk about on a medium that was supposed to remove political, geographic and economic boundaries. But with countless local agencies devoted to monitoring online discussions, it's no wonder that several people, including journalist Shi Tao -- whose identity Yahoo turned over to the CCP after he sent a party document to an overseas democracy site -- are serving jail terms for their efforts to exercise their rights. Beijing has also announced that it would forbid the opening of any new cybercafés in 2007.
Moreover, the very contents of some of China's regulations are themselves state secrets, and there is no way to challenge the evidence as it, too, is considered a state secret and not shared with the defendant. These vaguely worded laws are increasingly used to punish dissent and discussion, regardless of whether national security is genuinely threatened. But in China state-secrets laws have even been used to prevent coverage of natural disasters and public health crises, likely worsening a timely response to both.
I recently chatted with a Chinese official who was surprised to be reminded that democracies allow criticism of the government, and that in fact many people find it quite productive. "But," he said, "How do you uphold national stability if everyone is criticizing? How do you know who has the right to criticize?"
The Chinese government is finding that it can't have it both ways anymore. It can't make human-rights commitments to host the Olympics or hold a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council and then quash dissent and arbitrarily restrict speech. If China wants anyone to take its commitments seriously, it should fully and permanently repeal these and other restrictions on the right to free expression.
Sophie Richardson is Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.