Silenced in China

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

DESPITE numerous assurances that it would allow greater media freedom in the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, the Chinese government has yet again tightened media controls.

Two weeks ago, China closed the China Development Brief, a nonprofit newsletter that tracked the expansion of civil society in China. The publication, which has appeared in English since 1995 and in Chinese since 2001, covered sensitive subjects such as AIDS, the environment and the recent rural birth-control riots. It was the only publication of its kind that provided foreign nongovernmental organizations with accurate, independent and comprehensive information in English about Chinese civil society. The publication was also unusual in that it was not registered with the Chinese government or controlled by the state, and yet it was seen to be relatively friendly to the Chinese government. The publication's founder, British expatriate Nick Young, has indicated that he is sympathetic "to the real difficulties of governing this huge and complicated country" and has been critical of groups such as Amnesty International. None of that helped. The Beijing Statistics Bureau said it was shutting down the publication for conducting unauthorized surveys, a crime that seems to include any sort of information gathering. The government also has reportedly shut down Minjian, a Chinese-language quarterly that also focused on civil society and social issues, and reports have surfaced that eight journalists at the Chinese-language Democracy and Law legal journal were sacked mysteriously. The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not return calls requesting confirmation of either action.

In the meantime, the Chinese government has sought to control the distribution of politically sensitive information by limiting the mobility of critics and activists. Last week, Dr. Jiang Yanyong, who helped reveal the coverup of the SARS epidemic and has since spoken out about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, was denied permission to visit the United States to receive a human rights award. Many other activists and journalists are under house arrest or are incarcerated; China now imprisons more journalists than any other country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Those unlucky activists who are imprisoned allegedly are often mistreated, as was evident when Chen Xiaoming died this month after being denied medicine taken to him by his family for a chronic illness, according to the organization Human Rights in China.

While Mr. Young had been planning to leave China next month and is likely to escape the closing of his publication unscathed, his Chinese employees may not be as fortunate. The government has been relatively lenient with foreign journalists but has subjected Chinese journalists working for domestic or foreign publications to harsh sentences on trumped-up charges or technicalities. Outsiders will be watching to see whether China's pre-Olympic promises are worth anything at all.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company