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Beijing 2008: “Open Season”

Dec
5
2006

History – the West’s, at least – will judge the 2008 Beijing Olympics based on one simple question. Will the Games have made the host country a more open place? Or will they merely have mustered an aura – shallow and fleeting – thereof? The evidence of the five-plus years since China won hosting rights could be argued either way. Indeed, the only certainty we Western reporters have come to depend on is that Beijing will sustain the dramatic tension of this very question.

Hence all the buzz and skepticism surrounding the government’s new Olympic ground rules for foreign correspondents.

The rules, announced at a highly anticipated news conference this past Friday, were greeted with ice-cool exuberance – somewhat like the first day of college for a pack of already rebellious teenagers: All of the sudden, like, we won’t have to sneak out to parties anymore. Nice. That’s because of a key clause loosening travel restrictions on the foreign press.
For decades, technically, our kind has had to get permission from local waiban (foreign affairs offices) before hitting the provinces to investigate. But starting next year, apparently, we’ll be free to cover the whole of the land without any special authorization, even Tibet.
Yes, there is a catch. One, we must have the consent of our subjects. And two, we should be reporting on matters “related” to the Olympics, and “in the spirit of” the Games. But Liu Jianchao, the cuddly senior Foreign Ministry spokesman who announced the rules, assured us we’d be given a wide berth, extending political, social, economic and “other” matters.

The party won’t last forever, though. The rules only apply from January 1, 2007, to October 17, 2008, a month following the end of the Paralympics. They are untested, and it is unclear how police and local officials will interpret them. It is clear, though, that do not amount to a carte blanche to cover anything. Even at the news conference, one journalist brought up a newly published English manual for police teaching them how to explain to us why we cannot cover sensitive topics like the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong. So we can go to the party, but probably still can get in trouble if it’s busted.

That, of course, is a risk we’ve been taking all along. Every year, dozens of us are caught, whether at worker protests or rural riots, in AIDS-plagued villages or disaster zones. (I’ll spare you my stories) Except in rare cases or clear no-go zones – Tibet, Xinjiang, the North Korean border – the experience is straightforward. Keystone Cops hold us for several hours. They confiscate our notes and tapes, or erase our pictures (much of which we later find ways of retrieving). In most cases, they hand us over to senior “foreign affairs” officials or police – pitiful Javert types – who interview us about our unauthorized reporting activities and force us to fess up to them in writing. Finally, they tell us to scram. Ordinarily such infractions do not come back to hurt our guanxi in Beijing. It’s been a few years since one of us got expelled. It’s much more common, though, for newly arrived colleagues from outside China to have to wait for their accreditations to come through – as payback to individual organizations for naughty stories.

How much that whole cat-and-mouse game will change, we do not know. But what we can discern from the new rules is how officialdom’s approach toward controlling information and managing publicity is changing.
So here are five lessons China’s spin doctors seem to have learned, in preparation for a more open Olympics.

#1: Keep Current

Cross fast-moving markets and technology with a plodding one-party bureaucracy, and media policy perennially lags years behind practice. In the bad old days, censors could afford to proceed by stealth. But today, both foreign and domestic reporters in China exploit all sorts of so-called “grey areas” – that is, where the rules are in fact fairly black-and-white, but enforcement is inconsistent. The bottom line for the government no longer lies in Big Brother-style control, but rather in asserting a semblance of control. So when government organs perceive a vital economic or political interest in putting an end to something, they must paint embarrassingly bright new official boundary lines. They have tried to do so numerous times in the past two years vis a vis a vast array of characters: “public intellectuals”, bloggers,stand-alone news outlets, and the world’s biggest financial information providers. Yet by contrast, officials appear quite aware it’s futile for it to continue trying to block us laowai (“ferners”) from swarming to the bad news – and downright stupid to make it a such a hassle to cover the good.

#2: Be Prepared

But like everyone else, they need time to train for 2008. China’s cabinet and party propaganda organs have taken to test-running new regulations and floating proposed laws in the past few years, to guard against sudden shocks and backlashes in the media. That seems to explain why these new rules go into effect a 19 months before the Games. More and more international correspondents will set up camp here next year, before thousands pour into Beijing in 2008. Police and cadres at the grass-roots will need time to hone their techniques.

#3: Not Our shi’ r (affair)

And if they can’t or won’t, well, it’s not Beijing’s fault. For better or worse, high-level attitudes toward the roles of the media have become much more sophisticated in recent years. Decentralized as management of China is today, central officials have declared unprecedented support for the press to trouble-shoot and manage crises. At he same time, disciplinary and propaganda organs have been working on several new mechanisms to empower local officials to look after themselves. Local officials have become much more sensitive to negative exposure from natural disasters, accidents, and scandals. Do Foreign Ministry officials really need the headaches, not to mention the hypocrisy, of micromanaging our affairs? As the diplomatic corps, they’re responsible for playing Good Cop. It’s up to Public Security and Propaganda to play Bad Cop. Foreign correspondents, particularly in the past year or two, have lobbied them for greater freedom of movement. Last Friday, they responded. Or someone on-high did.

#4: Your journalists don’t scare us. Ours do.

If only our colleagues in the Chinese media could catch some regulatory breaks in kind. Here’s why they don’t: Upwards of 90 percent or more of the stories that come out of China today originate in some way, shape or form in domestic media, whether new or traditional, free or spoon-fed; and ninety-nine percent of the Chinese people get their domestic news largely from them.

#5 Heed our message, If Not Our Rules.

So obviously the Chinese media, contrary to their image as either muzzled or as mouthpieces, break lots of commercial and reporting rules every single day. No wonder Communist Party leaders don’t dare relax their rules. They will only see more, unfortunately, not less. Tis’ the lesson of Tiananmen: Send the wrong signal, and chaos might result.

Now that would spoil the party next year.

Share  Posted by jansfield at 11:16 AM | Permalink

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