In 2001, when Beijing won the fight for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government promised that it would guarantee total press freedom. However, China did not keep its promise, according to Shirley Wu, Ph.D.
“Journalists, scholars and observers have been expecting that the Chinese government [would] fulfill its pledge for seven years,” said Wu. “…[Yet] China is still the country which jails the largest number of journalists.”
China’s press freedom was 84 on a scale of 0 to 100, 0 being the freest press and 100 being the least free. In that same set of rankings from Freedom House, the human rights watchdog group, by way of comparison, America’s press freedom was rated 18.
“As the Olympic Games approach, the Chinese regime has intensified its repression on press freedom,” said Wu. “Foreign correspondents constantly face harassment, detention and intimidation at the hands of Chinese security forces.”
Wu spoke at the National Press Club on July 23 to discuss how the United States can engage more effectively with China before and after the Olympic Games. Wu said the only way to effectively engage the issue is to transfer the truth to the Chinese people, but the Chinese government won’t allow the truth if it conflicts with the government’s agenda.
“Even outside of China, Chinese media, under political and financial pressure…avoid reporting in certain sensitive areas, such as human rights issues, corruption… and even things like the severity of natural disasters and epidemics,” said Wu.
Wu said that “the current regime has also been purposely misleading China’s public opinion on western countries and values.” As a result, volunteers formed the U.S.-based Sound of Hope Radio Network, a non-governmental program which broadcasts the truth to the Chinese people 14 hours per day, seven days per week.
“The Sound of Hope Radio Network strives hard to break through the Chinese communist regime’s information blockade and provide objective news and cultural programs to Chinese people,” said Wu.
Wu said that the Chinese communists’ attempt to control and manipulate the truth is “comprehensive and unrivaled.”
“The regime employs millions of agents to monitor internet use and enforce censorship laws,” said Wu. “Dozens of people in China are in jail simply for visiting banned Internet sites.”
Sarah Cook, a fellow at Freedom House, said that journalism isn’t truly journalism in China. It’s Communist Party propaganda, because you “never hear anything that is separate from party lines.”
“There are daily directives to journalists saying what you can cover and what you can’t cover,” said Cook. “Journalists are not going to take the risk. If [they] write a story that isn’t published, [they] won’t get paid.”
Cook said that President Bush should meet with the lawyers and activists to discuss China’s violations; the international community should have used its leverage on China, but it chose not to.
“There’s a myth that Chinese people don’t want human rights, but if you talk to any ordinary Chinese citizen…they want less brutality of the system,” said Cook. “This isn’t just about diplomacy. We need to support the Chinese people, and the Chinese society as a whole.”
Cook argued that the people who may face the most harm are Chinese translators employed by foreign journalists.
“These journalists don’t speak Chinese and the Chinese people who are working for the journalists are the people who are in danger months after the Olympics end,” said Cook.
Wu said that censorship actually threatens lives.
“Breaking through the Chinese Communist Party’s blockade of uncensored information is a matter of life and death for the Chinese people in mainland China,” said Wu. “The regime’s covering up the SARS epidemic in 2003 speeded [sic] up its spread and deaths.”
The United States’ pressure for freedom of the press before, during, and after the Olympics is the first step to effectively engaging China, she argues.
“While [the] Chinese government relies heavily upon information censorship to maintain its control of over 1.3 billion Chinese people, information freedom is the key to the positive change of China,” said Wu.