China sees the 2008 Olympics as an opportunity to present a positive and smiling image to the outside world. (It actually has launched an international photo competition for children with smiling faces, but typically declines to indicate how these are to be used.)
This is a challenge for a regime using Western techniques to run an open-market economy, but maintaining political control with all the repressive apparatuses of a communist government.
At the recently concluded party congress in Beijing, Communist party chief and president of China Hu Jintao, whom some in the West had hoped would chart a more moderate political course for China, used the word "democracy" in his keynote speech more than 60 times. But, as the Economist magazine dryly remarked, "little has changed."
Democracy requires, among other pieces of infrastructure, a free press able to represent the governed, when necessary to check the governing. This is a concept alien to the Beijing regime, as it is to most other communist leadership.
With what must have been gritted teeth, the Beijing government promised foreign critics, who protested that it should not be allowed to host the Olympics while jailing and harassing journalists, that it would loosen the reins in the run-up to the Games and during the Games themselves – from mid-2007 to Oct. 17, 2008. On my desk as I write is a 263-page computer printout of China's Olympic "Service Guide for Foreign Media Coverage."
But though the guide promises free travel to places "open to foreigners designated by the Chinese government," and says foreign journalists will be free to report on Chinese politics, society, culture, and economy, media critics claim that the government has already gone back on its earlier words about openness, and that none of the claimed relaxations do anything to lift repressive conditions for Chinese journalists.
As an example of the kind of non-Olympic stories the government would like journalists to write, the official 2008 Olympics website offers a media trip to the Beijing Qinghe River Sewage Treatment Factory – hardly a story that Katie Couric and Wolf Blitzer are likely to compete over.
On websites outside China, press freedom organizations are calling on the International Olympic Committee and international sports organizations to speak up for human rights and press freedom.
Reporters Without Borders, a France-based free-press journalistic organization active on five continents, opposed the Olympic Games going to Beijing. "Chinese authorities," it says, "promised concrete improvements in human rights" to win the 2008 Olympics, "but they changed their tone after getting what they wanted." At least 30 journalists and 50 Internet users are currently detained, says the organization. The department of propaganda, public security, and the cyberpolice are active in silencing outspoken critics. As for the international media, it is impossible for them to move freely in Tibet or Xinjiang. To highlight restrictions in China during 2008, Reporters without Borders is marketing T-shirts with "Beijing 2008" on them, the five Olympic rings replaced with five interlocking handcuffs.
In October the board of the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed "grave concern" about the state of press freedom in China 10 months before the start of the Games. The board, made up of 35 prominent journalists, said Chinese leaders had failed to live up to the press-freedom commitments they made when they sought the Games. The CPJ board called for China to end censorship, its elaborate system of media controls, and punishment of journalists. It called on the International Olympic Committee, sponsors of the Games, and media organizations covering the Games, to demand that China meet its promises of press freedom.
In its latest report on press freedom, the highly regarded New York-based Freedom House says that, to avoid running afoul of the Central Propaganda Department, Chinese journalists "often engage in self-censorship, a practice reinforced by frequent ideological indoctrination and by a salary scheme that pays journalists only after their reports are published or broadcast. When a journalist writes a report considered too controversial, payment is withheld."
In an August Wall Street Journal article, Human Rights Watch official Sophie Richardson said that, as a coming-out party for China, the Games had raised hopes that China might fulfill its promises to allow unfettered press freedom. "But as we enter the home stretch before the games, the prospects for media and free expression reform are not good."
President Bush has announced he will visit China during the Olympics. He should remind Mr. Hu that a speech mentioning "democracy" 60 times should trigger more practice of press freedom than is evident in China to date.