Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Beijing caught in a lie

A little while ago I wrote about Beijing’s increasingly aggressive intelligence-collection program in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games, activities which could compel foreign governments to assist the authoritarian regime by sharing intelligence with it.

The picture became even uglier this week when police in Beijing clamped down on a group of foreign journalists and Reporters Sans Frontieres advocates who were calling Beijing’s bluff and accusing it of not respecting the commitment it had made to ensuring press freedom in China. Given the long list of precedents set by Chinese authorities on human rights across the spectrum, one wonders how anyone could have taken that pledge seriously. In fact, the indelible blotch behind all this is the fact that the Olympic Committee and the international community gave Beijing the games despite knowing fully well that they were being lied to, fully cognizant of the fact that China would continue to repress its people and bar reporters — domestic and foreign alike — from painting a complete picture of what’s going on in China.

Sadly, China has so far been able to get away with the lies and has been rewarded diplomatically and economically as if it were a responsible, law-abiding stakeholder.

But there might be hope. Foreign reporters in China may turn out to be worthier adversaries to the authoritarian regime than the diplomatic pushovers Beijing is used to dealing with — or, for that matter, the Chinese activists and reporters whom it can crush with impunity. Judging by some of the reactions, a number of foreign journalists did seem to believe things would improve in China and that they would have the liberty to do their job. Gullible as this might have been, their disillusionment and the attendant anger could put Beijing in an uncomfortable position, as they are unlikely to accept being censored. Moreover, Beijing would be hard pressed to imprison them, for unlike Celil Husayin, a Uighur rights activist with dual Canadian citizenship who was jailed in April (see “Why Celil doesn’t stand a chance,” April 27, 2007), the great majority of reporters are not Chinese. In other words, if those were to be thrown in jail, foreign governments responsible to those foreign nationals would, in contrast to how the Canadian government responded to Mr. Celil’s case, be hard pressed not to come to their assistance.

All in all, Beijing is caught between a rock and a hard place: either it clamps down on foreign reporters and thereby risks sparking an international incident, or it throws them all out, which would be detrimental to the image it is trying to conjure as the games approach. Its last option is to give foreign reporters the rights it promised to give them, with the result that the dire human rights and environmental situation — the rottenness underneath the veneer — will be exposed.

Beijing sought glory by hosting the games, but just as the mythical Icarus, it may see that the glare is just too hot for its own good.

1 comment:

Patrick Cowsill said...

It's going to be hard for the foreign press, regardless of how much a gloss China puts on Beijing, not to criticize this country. The more time they spend in China, the more they're going to become aware of all that goes on there. A big problem right now is that many "China journalists" live in Washington or London, Paris, etc. and not China. They do not speak the language or know the people, and so they just gobble up the official line.

There's lots to hope for though. For example, Paul Steiger, a Wall Street Journal editor and Chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists was quoted on NPR yesterday: "China has taken some very laudable steps to ease curbs on foreign journalists, and we're happy for that, but it has failed to do the same for its own journalists here in China."

Will China's gov continue to continue to shift the blame when things go wrong, insist on "5000 years of history" and say things like "it's just a conspiracy by jealous foreigners to bring the world's most glorious civilization down?"