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China: Analysis from Washington -- Government's New Media Crackdown

Washington, 28 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Chinese government has launched a sweeping crackdown on the country's news outlets, a campaign that appears likely to raise new questions about China's application to host the summer Olympic Games in 2008.

The "South China Morning Post," which is published in Hong Kong, reported on 27 June that the Chinese government has sent a 2,000-word document to all media outlets forbidding the publication of articles speculating about possible leadership changes, calling for new policies, or containing arguments that violate "the cardinal principles of Marxism."

In the future, the document specified, newspapers and journals must publish only articles on these and other sensitive subjects that have been prepared and distributed by the state news agency Xinua. Any outlet violating these new rules, the document continued, is subject to instant closure.

The government is clearly serious; The authorities have already shut down or suspended eight publications since the beginning of June, an indication of the level of concern about the media among the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. And the Hong Kong paper said that the editors of some 150 periodicals were summoned to a briefing in Beijing during which they were told how to cover upcoming party meetings and anniversaries.

Journalists have never had an easy time in China under the communists, but in recent years, the rise of privately owned media had allowed some journalists and some outlets to test the limits of the acceptable. The government clearly has decided to restore its control over the situation. Not only has Beijing issued this hard-line decree, but a court has sentenced a journalist who reported on corruption to four years in prison for allegedly revealing "state secrets."

These Chinese actions against the domestic media are striking given recent Beijing moves to present the country as the best candidate for holding the summer Olympic Games in 2008 and the Chinese government's recent care in dealing with anything that touches on the foreign media.

Following a U.S. government protest, Zhang Qiyue, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, allowed that Chinese guards had acted inappropriately in manhandling an American photojournalist last week when he was covering a concert in Beijing. The spokeswoman said that the incident with this journalist was an isolated event and should have no impact on Beijing's efforts to host the Olympic Games.

"We have the ability to host the Olympic Games," Zhang said. "We are confident that we will host the best Olympic Games."

In a related move, a Chinese human rights group said on 27 June that a court in southwestern China appears to have postponed the trial of a web site operator until after 13 July, the day when the International Olympic Committee is scheduled to announce its decision concerning whether Beijing will be selected as the city to host the games in 2008.

Frank Lu, of the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, said that the delay of the trial -- which has attracted international attention because it involves such sweeping charges against someone working on the Internet -- "must be because of the Olympic announcement."

This pattern of harsh moves against domestic publications combined with a more conciliatory tone toward media with foreign ties is nothing new in the case of China or other communist countries, but rarely has the gap between Beijing's approach to the two been broader or more brazen.

Clearly, China expects that the international community will accept its argument that Beijing should be allowed to host the Olympics. Indeed, even some critics of China's human rights and media policies have argued that the games themselves will help to open up that country.

But even if they are right, the actions of the Beijing authorities against domestic media this week suggest that editors and journalists there are going to face a difficult future for the next few years -- even if the games themselves are able to improve the situation seven years from now.