Beijing Olympics: Uncensored Internet?

Success of Games hinges on an unfettered internet

Failure to allow up to 22,000 accredited media representatives freedom of movement and uncensored web access at the 2008 Beijing Olympics will be catastrophic for China.

Louise Evans reports

05 October 2006

“HELLO, my name is Weiwei, but some of you may have trouble pronouncing that so you can call me Wendy.” So began the first world press briefing for the 2008 Beijing Olympics with the Chinese treating dumb foreigners like dumb foreigners.

The big news from the briefing, which was attended by more than 300 foreign journalists who would normally not be allowed into China, let alone feted, was that during the Games access to the internet would be uncensored.

The declaration was made by Li Jingbo, the media services chief of the Beijing Organising Committee for the Games, and it was splashed across the front page of the official English-language newspaper China Daily. “Overseas media will be able to freely travel around China and enjoy uncensored access to the internet during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, organisers promised yesterday,” the paper touted.

Visiting delegates were impressed. The International Olympic Committee’s press commission chairman Kevan Gosper was heartened. “My experience in working with them for five years is that when they say they will do something they will do it,” he said. “We got a straight assurance there would be no restraint on the internet at the time of the Games and I believe that will be the case.”

But Beijing-based diplomats who deal with China’s authorities daily were not convinced. “It won’t happen, it’s a lie,” one diplomat said.

Foreign business heavyweights were equally circumspect. “Good luck,” one old China hand laughed.

Free and uncensored are two words that are not used in connection with the media in China. Less than 24 hours after Li made his headline-grabbing promise, it was already in question.

When asked by The Australian when the internet would stop being censored for the Games and where, Li stated twice that the internet is not censored in China, which of course it is. Even search engine Google admits this. In a deal with Beijing, Google agreed to censor material deemed harmful to the state to gain greater access to China’s fast-growing market.

Li had made headlines by committing not to censor something he states isn’t censored.

Visit any internet cafe in China and you can get the internet, but not as we know it. Do a Google search for something innocent such as “John Howard and Australia” and you can’t get past the hits page. Search for something deemed sinister by the state, such as the banned Falun Gong, and Google offers pages condemning the group. Search for Taiwan independence or the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and Google shuts down.

Other sites, including the free encyclopedia Wikipedia and the BBC, are blocked because they contain material that is deemed damaging to the state. BBC World television, which is available in the big hotels, is also censored by the state, with the screen turning to snow whenever authorities decide the content is inappropriate.

Blackouts and blocking of the internet is a big issue for foreign media covering the Games because the internet is not only used for research but, crucially, to transmit pictures and data.

Interference and censorship slows access. A Google search for John Howard is painfully slow yet the official China Daily site builds in seconds.

The when and where questions regarding internet censorship could prove vital to the success of the 2008 Beijing Games. Will censorship stop on August 8, 2008, the day the Games start, or the week before when most foreign media representatives arrive and start transmitting en masse?

The inability to search and file will bring a rain of anger and abuse down on BOCOG, from which it may never recover. The 1996 Atlanta Olympic organisers failed to provide adequate transport for the media during the Games and were brutally punished by a whingeing world media for the screw-up. Not being able to get to venues on time is one thing. Not being able to file on time will be catastrophic for China.

BOCOG president Liu Qi told the world press briefing new regulations for foreign media operations would be in place early next year. “The new rules will consider the norms of the past Games and the needs of the media,” Liu said. This is a great leap for China as past Games - Athens 2004, Sydney 2000, Atlanta 1996 and Barcelona 1992 - were held in democratic countries that have free media. Gosper said a lot of changes have to be made and the IOC will know the final detail early in 2007 when new guidelines are introduced. “They know it is very important that media does get free access because it’s in the host contract that they will deliver conditions for reporting on the Games consistent with previous Games. We have been working with them quietly to ensure they understood the importance of freedom of movement and reporting of the Games and relaxing of entry arrangements for international journalists coming to Beijing.”

But already BOCOG has imposed two restrictions that did not apply in previous Games. In an attempt to block foreign access to Chinese athletes, all interview requests from foreign media must be made three weeks in advance. Foreign media are also banned from bringing into the country printouts and CDs that “will be harmful to China politics, economy and culture”. Presumably that means any material that is now blocked on the internet.

A BOCOG telco consultant advised that the “where” question regarding the internet could be easily fixed. He says uncensored internet access could be provided to the three main areas of foreign media operation: the main press centre, the media tribunes in the sporting venues and the media village. This would “limit the damage” as China obviously doesn’t want its heavily controlled media getting access.

The aptly named Propaganda Department regularly issues edicts telling China’s media what it can report, what tone to use and even where to place the story in the newspaper. The latest came during the world press briefing, regarding last week’s arrest of Chen Liangyu, the most senior Chinese Communist Party official in Shanghai, on corruption charges.

Mainland media were ordered to play down Chen’s fall and toe the party line in their coverage, with only official dispatches by the sanctioned state wire service Xinhua allowed to be published. “No other unauthorised or sensational report is allowed. Exaggeration or speculation must be banned,” it said. “No posting should stir trouble by speculating on discord among incumbent central leaders, between the leaders and their predecessors, or between central leaders and local cadres.”

Journalists who don’t comply are arrested, sentenced behind closed doors and jailed. Last month Ching Cheong, the chief China correspondent for The Straits Times of Singapore, was jailed for five years for passing state secrets to Taiwan. Personal property worth $50,000 was also confiscated from him.

More than 30 journalists and 50 internet campaigners have been jailed as part of China’s media clampdown.

China also issued new rules last month banning news that disrupts “economic and social order or undermines China’s social stability” and undermines “national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

China attempts to control foreign correspondents working on the mainland by making them apply for permission from the foreign ministry when they want to travel within China. Failure to comply leads to arrests and harassment. BOCOG states this condition will be relaxed during the Games but it is unclear for how long beforehand.

Propaganda Department edicts will mean little to foreign media wanting to visit China in the lead-up to the Games to investigate communism vis-a-vis rampant capitalism, Taiwanese and Tibetan independence, the death penalty, the one-child policy, forced abortions, the growing divide between rich and poor, and recreational drug use among the nouveau riche.

During the world press briefing, the Olympic editor of Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, Wakako Yuki, asked for transparency in granting visas and accreditation. Foreign media fear Beijing will attempt to ban journalists who have been critical of China.

The Australian Olympic Committee’s point man, Mike Tancred, asked for flexibility to be applied in a security system famous for its rigidity. On a previous visit with swimmer Grant Hackett, Tancred’s Chinese driver was detained for double parking a BOCOG-emblazoned vehicle.

One of the greatest fears of national Olympic committees is losing team members within China’s non-transparent legal system should they, for example, get drunk and clash with police or, worse, upset some party official by insisting that they were first in line at the bar.

With its huge Olympic construction boom China has proved it can make great changes overnight. It can also change the weather by seeding the clouds to make pollution-clearing rain. It can and regularly does stop traffic to allow convoys of VIPs to slip through the endless jams. It can change the landscape by laying fake grass along the ring roads to make the city appear greener. But whether it will allow foreign media free and uncensored access before and during the Games remains to be seen.

The first seizure of material from a foreign media representative, the first arrest for wandering off a sanctioned track, will be splashed across the world. Repeated arrests, seizures, bans and harassment would overshadow events inside the giant main stadium, dubbed the bird’s nest for its imposing steel lacework, and the innovative Watercube aquatic centre.

The international shame and loss of face would be enormous.

And for once China is not a law unto itself. It has to answer to the IOC and, as Gosper said, it wants to make a success of it.

Louise Evans is a former China correspondent who has covered three Olympic Games.

22,000 media, same number of iaaf members no wonder its so bloody hard to get tickets.