By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 20, 2008
BEIJING, March 20 -- As news reverberated around the world that bloody disturbances had erupted in Tibet, a star journalist for a leading Chinese newsmagazine was asked if he had any good sources in the remote mountain region. "Why?" he asked, unaware that anything was going on.
The reporter's reaction was not unusual. When rioting by outraged Tibetans shook Lhasa last Friday, the Communist Party's censorship apparatus tamped down news of the rampage, leaving most of China's 1.3 billion people in the dark. Government-controlled television news ignored the crisis for the first few days, and Chinese newspapers were restricted to skeleton dispatches from the official New China News Agency.
The immediate clampdown illustrated the party's abiding determination to control the flow of information in China, which officials regard as an important way for President Hu Jintao and his lieutenants to retain their monopoly on power.
But the party's subsequent moves, loosening controls this week to allow officially supervised reporting, also showed how difficult traditional censorship has become in an age of cellphones, Internet connections and satellite TV.
The Tibetan crisis, which drew global attention, in some ways constituted a test case for the Chinese government, which in January last year issued a regulation allowing foreign correspondents to report without official interference until after the Beijing Olympics this August. For human rights and press freedom activists, the results were disappointing.
Domestic reporting was first blocked by censors, they noted, then carefully oriented to depict Tibetan protesters in a bad light and the exiled Dalai Lama as a hypocritical agitator willing to spill blood to further his political aims, despite his advocacy of nonviolence. Reporting by foreign correspondents, which is not censored, was nevertheless restricted by security forces, who sealed off travel to Tibet and expelled foreign reporters from other areas where ethnic Tibetans mounted protests, including Beijing's Central University for Nationalities.
A dozen Hong Kong television reporters who made it into Lhasa on the strength of their Chinese passports were expelled Sunday after local officials burst into their hotel rooms and demanded they turn over all photographs and video footage of what was going on in the streets. But by then, they had transmitted images to their stations back in Hong Kong, which were then relayed on television news around the world.
"China has not kept any of the promises it made in 2001 when it was chosen to host these Olympics," said Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based press freedom advocacy group. "Instead, the government is crushing the Tibetan protests and is imposing a news blackout."
People's Daily, the main party newspaper, set the tone for the first stage of censorship. On Saturday, the day after 13 Han Chinese were killed by pillaging Tibetan monks and lay youths in Lhasa, it published two paragraphs on its back page under the headline, "Tibet Autonomous Region's authorities respond to New China News Agency reporter's questions."
"In the last few days, an extremely small minority of people in Lhasa carried out beating, smashing, robbery and burning activities, disrupting social order, endangering the lives, property and safety of the people and the masses," the dispatch quoted officials as saying. "There is ample proof that this was organized, plotted and masterminded by the Dalai Lama clique."
The next day's People's Daily carried no news at all on Tibet. China Daily, the party's English-language newspaper aimed at foreign residents, followed suit in its weekend edition, blaming the Dalai Lama and quoting an official saying, "The sabotage has aroused the indignation of, and is strongly condemned by, the people of all ethnic groups in Tibet."
Many Chinese, including those who had learned of the extent of the violence from foreign reports, seemed to take the censorship as a matter of course. Inured after years of such controls, most Chinese long ago lost any sense of indignation at being deprived of straight news by party censors.
Those who want more information -- and who have the means -- have learned to seek outside reporting on the Internet or to watch the news on Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong-based satellite station that broadcasts into China in Mandarin. Phoenix news programs have traditionally maneuvered between Hong Kong's free press atmosphere and the realities of Beijing's power over the owners. The result has been broadcasts that skirt the most sensitive issues but report more thoroughly than mainland television.
"We saw it all on Phoenix TV, burned shops and everything," said a retired hospital director whose Beijing home has cable service on a limited basis and who, like others questioned about censorship, was granted anonymity to speak candidly.
Despite the party's strictures at home, reporting from abroad filtered into China swiftly. Broadcasts by CNN and the BBC, available in hotels and in apartment complexes housing foreigners, were cut off only sporadically by Chinese authorities, including a news conference by the Dalai Lama on Sunday from Dharmsala, India.
By Monday, in the face of the crescendo of news from abroad over the weekend, the party had changed tactics and gone on the offensive.
Champa Phuntsok, the Tibetan regional governor, was flown to Beijing to meet with reporters in a hastily organized news conference. He blamed the Dalai Lama for the outburst and urged those who had committed arson and pillaging to turn themselves in.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao held a second news conference Monday evening, using identical language to excoriate the Dalai Lama and reiterate that the issue was not Tibetan human rights and freedom of expression but Chinese territorial sovereignty.
Newspapers were authorized to report on the comments by Champa Phuntsok and Liu, and the official Central China Television began broadcasting images of the damage, with emphasis on the injuries to Han Chinese and the damage to their businesses. By Thursday, Chinese state media were reporting that protests had spread to provinces beyond Tibet.
Resorting again to what appeared to be coordinated language by Beijing officials stepping up to the cameras, Premier Wen Jiabao pressed the offensive Tuesday in his annual news conference at the close of the National People's Congress's two-week session. "They wanted to incite the sabotage of the Olympic Games to achieve their unspeakable goal," he said of the rioters.
Asked by a foreign correspondent why journalists were not allowed to travel to Tibet to cover what was happening, Wen assured his questioner that everything was returning to normal and suggested that, soon, the government would organize a reporting trip for correspondents.