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Daily Democracy

Ryan Blethen discusses the press, media and democracy. Daily Democracy is part of the Democracy Papers, a series of articles, essays and editorial opinion examining threats to our freedoms of speech and the press.

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January 17, 2008 8:00 AM

Journalism & the Olympics

Posted by Ryan Blethen

A recent post on Blogging Beijing resonated with me. Daniel Beekman, a Fulbright researcher in Beijing who is penning the blog for seattletimes.com, wrote about the many journalists that are showing up in Beijing for this summer's Olympics.

I related to many of his observations of "parachute journalism" and the difficulties facing reporters in China. I have been reading stories from China with a much more skeptical eye since returning from a work related trip there in September. It did not take me long to understand the Chinese government's obsession with controlling the message.

Beekman nails it with this passage:

"With regard to the Chinese government, in particular, one quick-hit narrative struck a decidedly patronizing tone.


'China and its 1.3 billion prospective soft-drink and credit-card consumers will open themselves to the world in a way that the Chinese government might not yet fully comprehend,' a visiting American journalist wrote. 'International corporations are salivating at the thought, which is, of course, the main reason China won the right to host these Olympics. For perhaps the first time in its history...Chinese leaders will be unable to control the message being sent from their borders. Until now, various Western news bureaus have butted heads with the Chinese thought police. But this summer, thousands of foreign journalists from every spot on the globe will demand to play by their rules, not China's.'

"The August arrival of a feisty world press may give Beijing some trouble. Still, I'd call the argument quoted above naive. China may be a developing country, but the men and women running Beijing's Olympics aren't dumb. They've been prepping for nearly a decade."

Beekman is right. The notion that thousands of foreign journalists are going to show up in Beijing and dictate new journalistic rules to the Communist Party is not only naive, but laughable.

I only have my eleven days in China and Hong Kong to base my skepticism that a great journalistic opening will be a byproduct of the Olympics. Having talked to other journalists and Westerners who have lived, worked, and traveled in China I am confident that my skepticism is warranted.

The nine American journalists I traveled with to China were brought there through the East West Center, which is based in Hawaii. The East West Center brings Western journalists to Asia, and Asian journalists to the states and houses some of the best Asia experts. After easily clearing customs, an experience that took longer reentering the United States, we were greeted by our handler, Huang Liming, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Our relationship with Mr. Huang, as we called him, quickly turned sadly comical. One event more than anything pushed Mr. Huang from a friendly and professional host to a nagging ball of nerves. An interview with Liu Jieyi, director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs, deteriorated when he was posed questions about Taiwan. A more detailed account of the exchange can be found here in a column I wrote Sunday. At the end of what we believed was an on-the-record interview Liu told us this was not the case. Liu smoothly exited, leaving Mr. Huang to clean up the mess.

Mr. Huang hounded us, especially the managing editor of Commentary magazine who was the most aggressive with his question for Liu. Mr. Huang would have followed us to Hong Kong if he was allowed. Obviously some of us did not heed Mr. Huang's pleas. Gary Rosen from Commentary wrote about the fiasco. His piece can be found here.

My time in China gave me a greater appreciatoin and respect for the work of Chinese journalists who do push back against the government, and the Western journalists doing their jobs through a seemingly inpentarable maze of bureacracy and culture. I have particularlly enjoyed James Fallows reports in the Atlantic. Probably because he seems to have gotten outside the away from many of the bureaucrats and keeps coming up with some fascinating characters.

The Liu interview, and Mr. Huang's haranguing of us is just one example of China's fear of a free press. No amount of complaints about press freedoms during a month this summer is going to lessen that fear, or force the Communist Party to abandon its control of the press.

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