Less than a month from now, we will find out if China will maintain its attitude of greater openness with the foreign media. My bet is that it won’t.
At the beginning of the year, China relaxed its rules on the foreign media to fulfill pledges for greater freedoms in the period around the Olympic Games. The measures lapse on Oct. 17.
If the old rules come back into play, this is what it means:
- Reporters will be required again to seek advance permission from the Foreign Ministry for any trip outside of their base, such as Beijing.
- And reporters will no longer be free to interview anyone who agrees to an interview request. Rather, interviews must be vetted by authorities.
The old rules provide the means to tighten the choke leash at any time. If any nasty stories about tainted food products might arise, for example, authorities can keep us journalists from traveling to the factories or hospitals where the problems are severe.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of China, which has 432 members from 29 countries, issued a statement this week calling on China to keep the greater freedoms that it allowed during the Olympic period.
"The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China urges the government to build an Olympic legacy by enshrining the pledge of openness in new rules for foreign correspondents.
"In keeping with China's efforts to become a more open society, we urge the government to recognize in the new regulations for foreign correspondents that the free flow of information is crucial to the proper functioning of the globalized world."
But at a Foreign Ministry briefing this Tuesday, spokeswoman Jiang Yu offered no hint whatsoever that the relaxed rules would continue in their present form.
She was asked, “Any chance these measures may be extended?”
Her answer, according to a transcript on the Foreign Ministry website, was: “I understand your interest in this issue. The Regulation expires on Oct. 17. I would like to stress that China will carry on the opening-up spirit, welcome foreign journalists as always, and protect their legitimate rights and interests in China according to law, including their right to report. We also hope you will abide by Chinese laws and regulations and cover China in an objective and fair manner.”
I spoke to a veteran diplomatic China-watcher last night who agreed that the signs are not promising. We may soon be slipping backward toward the greater restrictions.
It is a clever system. Under the old way of doing things, we journalists could not do our jobs and follow the law. We could not ask for, and obtain, permission for every interview that is needed to write our stories. So we were in constant violation of the law, which is designed so that our “right to report” is to regurgitate what is told to us by the heavily controlled state-run media. If we stray, and we must or we’d lose our jobs, we can be reprimanded at any moment.
And I’m sure it will be for our own good. After all, authorities know that covering China in an “objective and fair manner” means covering it just like Xinhua or the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling party.