Six months after the Beijing Olympics began on 8 August 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. Foreign journalists continue to enjoy the freer regulations introduced for the Olympics (even if they have not been applied in Tibet), but 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 organisation added: “It is also deplorable that improved access to websites, 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 meagre.”
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 (胡佳), 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 (黄琦), 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 have not been allowed to see him.
Writer and lawyer Yang Maodong (杨茂东) continues to be mistreated in the southern province of Guangdong. Fellow lawyer Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚), who has had acute diarrhoea for months, was denied an early release on medical grounds by the authorities in Shandong last month.
Yang Chunlin (杨春林), one of the initiator of the “We want human rights not Olympic Games” campaign, is still detained in the north-eastern 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
Several incidents involving foreign journalists have been reported 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 said. “Freedom of movement and freedom to interview should not be limited to anodyne subjects.”
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 takes note of the 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 (新华社), 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
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 (新京报), for example, ran a report about the way some of the people organising petitions have been forcibly confined in psychiatric institutions. Similarly, the media have given extensive coverage to the contaminated milk powder story after been prevented from doing so until the end of August because of the Olympic Games.
China Business Post (财经时报), a Beijing-based business weekly, ceased operating altogether after being suspended in September for three months over an article about questionable bad-debt accounting by a branch of the Agricultural Bank of China. “Even if the newspaper could have resumed publishing on 8 December, the pressure from the authorities was too strong,” a former employee told Reporters Without Borders.
It was the magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu (炎黄春秋) that was threatened by the Propaganda Department in November but, after a hue and cry by the journalists, the authorities did not go ahead with a purge of the staff.
Facing social unrest linked to the economic slowdown, the government is not relinquishing its hold on the media. It announced on 13 January that it was going 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 (刘云山) said: “It has become urgent for China to ensure that our communication capacity matches our international prestige.”
The government’s grip over the media has prompted reactions from intellectuals. A score of university professors and lawyers issued a call on 12 January to “Boycott CCTV, reject the brainwashing.” They are particularly incensed by the government’s control of the broadcast media and CCTV’s failure to cover the contaminated milk powder story properly.
Just as many journalists and bloggers still in prison
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. His wife said he has lost weight and is exhausted by the forced labour.
Journalists continue to be arrested. Guan Jian, a reporter with Wangluo Bao (网络宝,Network News), a Beijing-based weekly, was arrested on 1 December 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 (郭泉) 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 US company Google for ensuring that a search for his name on its Chinese-language search engine (http://www.google.cn) yielded no results.
As Hu Jia’s wife Zeng Jinyan (曾金燕), 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 (王荣清), 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 8 January. 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 (刘晓波), was arrested shortly after its release on 9 December 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.
Liu Di (刘荻), who is better known by her blog name of “Stainless Steel Mouse,” was summoned for questioning by the Beijing police on 25 January. According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, the police interrogated her about the blog entries she had written about Charter 08 and the photo of Liu Xiaobo she had posted online, and they told her she was being placed under surveillance. The next day, a police car took up position outside her home and she can no longer go out without the Public Security Bureau’s permission.
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 (王连玺), 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 websites 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 meagre “Olympic legacy.” The Reporters Without Borders website 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/) and 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 website YouTube was blocked in December.
The leading international news media have also seen their websites 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 (刘建超) explained that “some websites” had content that “violates Chinese laws,” adding that “I hope the websites will practice self-restriction in terms of what they publish.”
A few weeks later, on 5 January, 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 online free expression. More than 90 websites have already been blocked, some of which have nothing to do with porn or invasion of privacy.
The police closed the Chinese website Zhongguo Nongchanpin Shichang Zhoukan (中国农产品市场周刊) in September because of its articles on the contaminated milk power. The Hi.baidu.com website was blocked by the authorities in November. Finally, the political blog portal Bullog.cn was closed in January. The directive issued by the authorities was very clear: “The www.bullog.cn website is publishing a lot of negative information in the public domain. We already asked it to correct this, but the site has still not taken any effective measures. It is now necessary that the hosting organisation block the domain name - HOLD domain name bullog.cn.”
The government’s reaction to Charter 08’s circulation on the Internet has been virulent. The webpolice have had the manifesto removed from thousands of websites and blogs. When Chinese Human Rights Defenders did a Chinese-language search with Google three days after Charter 08’s launch, they found that the authorities had blocked 86 per cent of the websites that had posted it.
But some Internet users have fought back. Wang Zhaojun (汪兆钧), 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.
Would-be protesters still threatened
Some would-be protesters have been released, including the two elderly women who were given a reeducation sentence for requesting permission to demonstrate in one of the Beijing locations designated for this purpose during the Olympic Games.
But the police continue to prevent peaceful protests. For example, someone representing people who had been evicted from their land in Hubei province was arrested in mid-December for planning to go to Beijing to demonstrate.
Three Jiangsu province petition organisers were freed at the end of September after being held in illegal prisons during the Olympic Games. But 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.
Finally, a Shanghai petitioner was beaten by police for daring to request assistance for his elderly mother who had to be hospitalised as a result of the stress she suffered during the games, when he was being kept under close police surveillance.
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.”