Chinese not as clueless as their government wishes

In mid-September, a 31-year-old man in a township near China's eastern city of Nanjing killed dozens of people and sickened hundreds more by adding rat poison to food sold at a rival's snack shop.

The numbers of those affected are only estimates; no one is ever likely to know the full scope of this crime because the Chinese government imposed a news blackout.

"The media are being coerced into giving the same official story," said a Chinese journalist who tried to cover the story. Said another, "We couldn't file the food poisoning story from our reporters, and we're not allowed to give it to foreign media. If we do, we take a risk."

Why the chokehold? Numerous interviews by a Mandarin-speaking investigative reporter at Radio Free Asia (RFA) point to the strong possibility that officials were trying to conceal negligence by the local government. If authorities had alerted the public more quickly once the first poisoning was discovered, many victims might have been spared.

Such incidents are more common in China than many people realize, but you'd never know it from the Chinese media. A long list of taboo topics includes China's widespread worker and farmer protests, discrimination against minorities, coercive family planning, jailing and torture of dissidents and Falun Gong members, the government's failure to curb a burgeoning AIDS crisis, Taiwanese attitudes toward the mainland, and criticism of government leaders.

International broadcasters such as RFA, Voice of America (VOA), and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) partially fill the void, picking up stories where Chinese media leave off, interviewing a variety of sources, and transmitting news through shortwave radio and over the Internet.

Covering the news in China is challenging, but getting it out can be even more so. For all the hoopla over China's rebirth as a forward-looking, market-oriented behemoth in the post-cold-war world, it still practices what Thomas Jefferson once called "tyranny over the minds of men."

Engineers who monitor shortwave transmissions say Chinese authorities have substantially increased jamming of RFA, VOA, and BBC programming – sometimes using European- and US-made equipment – since Congress voted to accord China permanent normal trade status in 2000.

In Lhasa, Tibet, it is almost impossible to receive a good signal for VOA or RFA's Tibetan-language transmissions, even though the broadcasts are on several frequencies. Ironically, jamming became even more severe after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and committed itself to a more transparent economy under the rule of law. The US complained that the jamming violates international radio agreements. China claims it does not willfully cause interference. The Federal Communications Commission calls Chinese responses "duplicitous at best."

Chinese sources say the stepped-up jamming follows directives from Chinese leaders, including President Jiang Zemin. In the end, top-level pressure from the US may be the only way to halt it.

When people don't have access to news and views from the outside world, with honest debate and freedom to draw their own conclusions, misunderstandings arise. Neither the US nor China can afford to leave 1.3 billion people in the dark about what's going on in the world or their own backyards.

A version of a banned, unpublished story about the September poisonings from a Chinese newspaper, Southern Weekend, leaked to overseas websites. Website managers in China deleted it from domestic sites and removed accounts posted by witnesses who said that the official death toll of 38 was too low. Southern Weekend had concluded that at least 60 died and 800 were poisoned.

The chance of misunderstanding grows larger when it comes to international events. When a Chinese fighter jet collided with a US reconnaissance plane last year off China's coast, RFA was flooded with calls from Chinese listeners asking for details and offering thanks for the full story. Chinese listeners tell RFA every day that they know their own media withhold news and that international broadcasting gives them a more complete picture. Many knew they weren't getting the whole story about the collision. And they were impressed that congressionally funded RFA would broadcast their criticisms of the US.

International broadcasters offer breadth and balance that many Chinese know they're missing in their own media – and to which their own Constitution entitles them. Mr. Jiang has clearly favored his predecessors' strict control over the information flow. China's new generation of leaders, set to take center stage in coming months, should move quickly to reverse that policy and help transform China into a truly great power of the 21st century.

• Dan Southerland, a former Monitor and Washington Post correspondent in Asia, is vice president of programming and executive editor at Radio Free Asia in Washington, D.C.

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