Minding Your Business for You

Government `minders' monitor journalists, stage-manage interviews, and get a free lunch

DRESSED in denim jeans, jacket, and boots, Zhu Xiaobin enthusiastically shakes hands, offers his card and introduces himself with his chosen Western name, ``Hi, I'm Eddie Zhoo.''

Mr. Zhu is greeting two visiting Western journalists on behalf of the waiban or foreign-affairs office of Yichang, and, during their three-day stop in this dreary Yangtze River town was responsible for arranging interviews and interpreting. But that was not Zhu's main job. He is part of a layered hierarchy of ``minders'' all across China, charged with keeping an eye on foreigners and ensuring that they see and hear what the government wants - all for a hefty fee.

With Beijing's attention focused on the controversial Three Gorges Dam, and Yichang's fortunes riding on its completion, Zhu took his job seriously. The massive dam is a priority project that will channel millions of dollars to the locality for resettling residents and building infrastructure - and, most likely, lining official pockets.

For three days, Zhu conscientiously and with great paranoia stage-managed the visit. The journalists were shepherded to official interviews and to see resettlements where everyone sang the praises of the new dam.

The young official was never far away, closely monitored interviews, and often tried to read the journalists' notes. He even intervened several times to stop chats with residents critical of the dam, including calling the police to block further interviews. After renting a boat to travel upstream to talk to residents affected by the dam, the journalists were ordered back and guarded by the police and a suddenly sullen Zhu.

Like many Chinese officials, he also viewed the visit as a chance for profit. Every meal, paid for by the correspondents, was an elaborate banquet attended by a bevy of officials who materialized as mealtime neared.

``I can't let anything negative be written,'' Zhu admitted, citing the example of a colleague in a neighboring province who was reprimanded for bad publicity about the dam. ``I can get in a lot of trouble.''

The waiban network is part of the restrictive reality of reporting here. Every state office has designated officials who often take weeks to arrange meetings, decline interviews, or never even bother to respond at all.

Before foreign reporters can leave Beijing or Shanghai, where overseas journalists are allowed to live, they must get official approval from the waiban in their destination. Often, the program for a visit contains few requested meetings. Under a new law passed in June, Chinese can be detained for speaking to journalists.

Currently, foreign journalists are undergoing one of China's cyclical periods of tightening. Just a year ago, Beijing was putting on its best face in a bid to win the right to host the 2000 Olympics.

But in one year, the government has cracked down on dissidents, rearrested prominent activists released before the Olympic decision, and followed and detained foreign correspondents in the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the United States decision on China's low-tariff trade status in June. Routinely, journalists are admonished for hard-hitting stories and in some cases expelled for critical coverage.

Amid growing corruption among local officials, the Foreign Ministry has cracked down on rapacious waibans charging journalists exorbitant fees for basically being watched. Still, there are many Eddie Zhoos in China: fearful of higher recriminations if journalists get too independent, but not too inhibited to make a quick buck.

``I hope you enjoyed your visit,'' Zhu waved as the relieved journalists climbed aboard their departing train. ``I hope you come back to Yichang.''

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