In a sweeping liberalization of its reporting rules, China Friday suspended decades-old restrictions on foreign journalists in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games.
The new regulations, allowing foreign reporters to travel throughout the country and to interview people without prior official permission, are clearly aimed at keeping the government's promise to the International Olympic Committee that it would allow free reporting during and before the 2008 games.
Foreign correspondents in China greeted the news with cautious optimism. "This is a welcome step," says Melinda Liu, president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China and Beijing bureau chief for Newsweek magazine. "The proof of how valuable the new regulations will be will depend on their implementation, however," she adds. "The biggest concern is still the [authorities'] culture of nontransparency and the habit of not being open to foreign or any other media."
The strength of that culture is clearly evident in an official police language-training manual obtained by the Monitor. It is being used to teach Beijing policemen the English phrases they might need when dealing with Olympic visitors.
Published by China's Public Security Bureau University and the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, "Olympic Security English" contains a practice dialogue entitled, "How to Stop Illegal News Coverage.".
The dialogue teaches policemen the English phrases they would need to detain a foreign reporter found talking to a Chinese citizen about Falun Gong, an outlawed spiritual movement.
Beijing city patrolmen are given the manual as part of a home study program according to one city police officer who asked not to be identified.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao, announcing the new regulations at a press conference, would not say whether the manual would be withdrawn in light of the decree promulgated Friday in the name of Premier Wen Jiabao.
He did say, however, that his ministry would "brief relevant domestic agencies and departments on the new regulations and ask them to abide by them. We will ensure that they are duly and responsibly implemented."
Mr. Liu also pledged that foreign reporters' new freedoms would not be limited to the Olympic Games and their preparation, although the decree specifies that the regulations apply to "reporting activities carried out by foreign journalists covering the Beijing Olympic Games and related matters."
"Foreign journalists will not limit their reporting activities to the Games themselves," Liu acknowledged. "They will also cover politics, science, technology, culture, and the economy. The 'related matters' ... expands the areas on which foreign journalists can report."
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International, which has long called on the Chinese authorities to lift restrictions on press freedom, describes the new rules as "interesting" but complains that they do "not go far enough," according to spokeswoman Saria Rees-Roberts. She regrets that the restrictions on foreign reporters have been suspended only from Jan. 1, 2007 until Oct. 17, 2008 – one month after the end of the Paralympics.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that 31 Chinese journalists are currently in jail, including Zhao Yan, a New York Times researcher whose three-year prison sentence for fraud was upheld by a Beijing court on Friday.
Rather than lifting media restrictions in the run-up to the Olympic Games, the Chinese government has, in fact, been imposing more restraints, press-freedom advocates complain. The government recently issued a law forbidding local and foreign journalists from reporting on disasters such as an outbreak of disease, a terrorist attack, or an environmental catastrophe before the authorities have issued a statement on the incident.
Last September, the authorities announced that only the official Xinhua news agency would be authorized to distribute foreign financial information, news, and photographs. The regulations, which have yet to be implemented, would ban foreign suppliers of information from distributing news that "endangers China's national security, reputation, and interests."
Some observers say that the new rules for foreign reporters are evidence that the Games, which Beijing is treating as its coming-out party on the world stage, are offering an opportunity for China to approach international standards in some areas of governance.
Though the suspension of restrictions on foreign correspondents is due to end after the Olympics conclude in 2008, "it will be very difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube" then, says Newsweek's Ms. Liu.
"As reforms deepen in China, services to journalists will deepen, too," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu told reporters attending a briefing on the new rules. "As time goes by, you will have more access to information and interviewees."
'Illegal' news coverage
What follows is the dialog "How to Stop Illegal News Coverage" that appears in a training manual distributed to Beijing policemen learning English in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games.
P(oliceman): Excuse me, sir. Stop, please.
F(oreign journalist): Why?
P: Are you gathering news here?
P: About what?
F: About Falun Gong.
P: Show me your press card and your reporter's permit.
F: Here you are.
P: What news are you permitted to cover?
F: The Olympic Games.
P: Falun Gong has nothing to do with the Games.... You should only cover the Games.
F: But I'm interested in Falun Gong.
P: It's beyond the limit of your coverage and illegal. As a foreign reporter in China you should obey China law and do nothing against your status.
F: Oh, I see. May I go now?
P: No. Come with us.
F: What for?
P: To clear up this matter.