Today, October 17, 2008, temporary regulations that were said to guarantee the ability of international journalists to report freely from China will expire.

The government of the People’s Republic of China issued these regulations in line with a pledge it made in its January 17, 2001 official proposal to host the 2008 Beijing Olympics: “There will be no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games.” In the years between that original pledge and the Olympics, the Chinese government repeatedly qualified that simple, straightforward declaration, so that the regulations that have been in effect since January 1, 2007 fell far short of international norms guaranteeing full freedom of the press—most notably in the fact that China’s domestic media was excluded altogether from the temporary protections.

Nevertheless, the regulations were the most concrete articulation of China’s broader pledge to the International Olympic Committee and the world to improve human rights in China before, during, and after the Olympics, and as such they offered important new assurances for international journalists and provided a significant and tangible benchmark for evaluating China on its broader Olympic-year commitments.

Unfortunately, as we documented in our July 8, 2008 report Failing to Deliver: An Olympic-Year Report Card on Free Expression in China—findings which we summarize and update here—China repeatedly failed to abide by even these highly-qualified temporary regulations. The record is sufficiently disappointing that international media organizations, and the international community as a whole, should be concerned about what the expiration of these minimal protections will mean for foreign journalists operating in China.

Of even greater concern to PEN are the ongoing restrictions on our Chinese colleagues, restrictions that continued unabated and even increased in the run up to the Olympics. As this report makes clear, these restrictions took a heavy toll on Chinese writers, journalists, and bloggers in general, and on our colleagues in the Independent Chinese PEN Center in particular, over the past year, and significantly curtailed the free flow of information and ideas for all Chinese citizens.

For PEN, the test of whether a state is protecting and guaranteeing the essential human right of freedom of expression is whether its citizens are free to investigate and report the news, publish or post their opinions and criticisms, challenge official orthodoxies, and create literature without fear of censorship or persecution. Even as the eyes of the world were on China this Olympic year, the Chinese government repeatedly demonstrated a lack of commitment to respecting and expanding this right. If hosting Olympics was to have encouraged human rights improvements in China, the early returns are certainly discouraging.

Restricting Press Freedom

Despite the Chinese government’s clear commitments to allow international journalists to report freely in the months before and during the Olympics, reporters and news organizations were subjected to press freedom violations in China in the past year. These included the following incidents:

  • During the crackdown on protests in Tibetan areas that began in March, the government cut off or interrupted telephone and Internet service in Lhasa and other Tibetan areas, significantly hindering the flow of eyewitness reports and other information as violence spread and the number of deaths rose. Three months later, Human Rights Watch confirmed that authorities continued to confiscate mobile phones, cameras, fax machines and computers, monitor calls, censor and block emails and Internet content, and harass Tibetans to prevent them from communicating with journalists and relaying information inside and outside of Tibet.
  • Since March, international journalists have only been allowed into Tibetan areas on government-orchestrated visits, always chaperoned and closely monitored by Chinese officials. Foreign journalists who attempted on their own to enter the Tibetan Autonomous Region and neighboring Tibetan areas in Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan and Gansu Provinces were detained and turned away. Only The Guardian has been permitted to travel in Tibet in recent weeks, and journalists on the trip say that because of the increased security, few Tibetans were willing to speak with them.
  • The BBC, NBC, AP, Reuters, and a handful of other international news organizations were allowed into Tibet to cover the Olympic Torch Relay in Lhasa on June 21—an event that occurred against a backdrop of intensified security and a major redeployment of armed police to the region. These news organizations were only permitted to view the beginning and the end of the torch route through Lhasa.
  • Similar controls were imposed on reporting from areas affected by the May 12 Sichuan earthquake. Although the government allowed an unusual level of live coverage of rescue efforts, once attention turned to questions that were potentially embarrassing for Chinese officials, there was a concerted effort to rein in—and even black out—press coverage. In just one example, on June 12, Agence France-Presse reported that at least six foreign media representatives were manhandled, detained, and expelled from the region when they tried to report from collapsed schools in Dujiangyan.

On July 29, foreign journalists working at official Olympic press venues in Beijing reported that the web sites of Amnesty International, the BBC, Radio Free Asia, and other human rights sites were blocked. The IOC, responding to an international uproar, said it would investigate, noting that the Chinese government had pledged complete media freedom before, during and after the Games. However, an IOC spokesman admitted “that some IOC officials negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would be blocked on the basis they were not considered Games-related.” 2 While the censorship of the Amnesty International site was lifted soon after, more than 50 other “sensitive” web sites, including those related to Tibet, Falun Gong, and others critical of the Chinese government remained blocked throughout the Games.

On August 4, just four days before the Olympics opened in Beijing, paramilitary police were attacked in the far-western city of Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, killing 16. As journalists flocked to the site, officials quickly stifled their ability to report on the event. In one of a handful of incidents, paramilitary police assaulted and detained two Japanese journalists, Masami Kawakita, a photographer with the Chuichi Sports newspaper, and Shinji Katsuta, a reporter with the Nippon Television Network, and damaged their equipment. The attack prompted an official apology from senior police officers the next day.

Violations occurred even in Beijing during the Olympics themselves. As peaceful protests cropped up throughout the city during the Games—many of which were quickly and forcefully suppressed—video and eyewitness accounts documented plainclothes and other police officers blocking cameras and ushering away journalists, and sometimes even manhandling those with accreditation, directly violating the terms of the temporary regulations. In one stark example, John Ray, an accredited reporter for British-based ITN-TV, was manhandled and detained while covering a pro-Tibet protest in Beijing’s Ethnic Minorities Park. According to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China, Ray was pinned down by police, dragged along the ground and pushed into a police van. His equipment was confiscated, and he was accused of participating in the protest. Video of the incident showed Ray’s accreditation was clearly visible.

Because they were directed toward or involved international journalists and media outlets, these violations of press freedom norms and of China’s explicit promises received substantial attention and criticism up through the Olympic Games. Less noticed, but of even greater concern to PEN, was the fact that Chinese journalists, unprotected by the temporary regulations that were supposedly meant to allow foreign journalists to travel and report freely, remained under the thumb of the Propaganda Department of the Chinese government and were required to follow its directives.

As a result, major stories went unreported in the Chinese press. There was no mention in the Chinese media of street demonstrations in Beijing during the Olympics, for example, and Chinese journalists attending a press conference held by the U.S. men’s volleyball team following the stabbing of American tourist Todd Bachman, the father-in-law of team coach Hugh McCutcheon, had their notebooks confiscated, as that story, too, remained off limits to the domestic press. And, in another sign that it was business as usual for China’s press censors, domestic journalists who wandered beyond the official boundaries continued to be punished. On May 5, for instance, Chang Ping was dismissed from his post as deputy editor of the magazine Nandu Zhoukan (Southern Metropolis Weekly) after he published several editorials about Tibet that did not toe the party line.

Targeting Writers

Jailing Writers

On December 10, 2007, PEN American Center and PEN Canada joined with the Independent Chinese PEN Center to launch the We Are Ready for Freedom of Expression campaign, an Olympic year initiative to win the release of writers and journalists in Chinese prisons and to hold the Chinese government accountable to its Olympics pledge to expand human rights in China. At that time, PEN was following the cases of 40 writers and journalists imprisoned in China. Today, there are at least 44 writers and journalist imprisoned in China, and PEN is tracking the cases of another 10 writers who were recently released and remain subject to significant restrictions on their freedom of movement and freedom to write or who are vulnerable to arrest at any time.

Shockingly, 12 writers were detained in the 10 months between the launch of the campaign and the Beijing Olympic Games:

  1. Wang Dejia: Internet writer and dissident, detained December 13, 2007 and released on January 12, 2008 on condition that he not write anything “attacking the leadership of the Party and State,” “inciting subversion of state power,” or any “political commentary.”
  2. Hu Jia: Freelance reporter and blogger, civil rights, environmental and AIDS activist, arrested December 27, 2007 and convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” on April 3, 2008. Hu is now serving a 3 ½-year sentence.
  3. Jamyang Kyi: Prominent Tibetan writer, reporter, activist and singer detained April 1, 2008, and reportedly released several weeks later.
  4. Zhou Yuanzhi: Freelance writer and member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, detained on May 3, 2008 and released on May 15, 2008. Zhou is forbidden from traveling beyond his home city without police authorization, prohibited from communicating with strangers, and banned from publishing.
  5. Chen Daojun: Freelance writer and journalist, detained May 9, 2008 and charged with “inciting splittism.”
  6. Guo Quan: Writer and former professor of literature at Nanjing Normal University, detained May 17, 2008 and released May 28, 2008.
  7. Feng Zhenghu: Rights defender, online writer and freelance journalist, detained on June 5, 2008 on suspicion of “intentionally disturbing public order and released on June 15, 2008.
  8. Zeng Hongling: Writer and retired worker, detained June 9, 2008 after publishing articles on her experiences from the May 12, 2008 earthquake.
  9. Huang Qi: Cyber-dissident, writer, director and co-founder of the Tianwang Human Rights Center, detained on June 10, 2008.
  10. Du Daobin: Writer and member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, re-arrested July 21, 2008 to serve the remaining two years and four months of his three-year sentence for subversion, which had been suspended for four years.
  11. Mehbube Ablesh: Uighur journalist working at the Xinjiang People’s Radio Station, detained in August for articles she published online. Her whereabouts are currently unknown.
  12. Rangjung: Tibetan writer and reporter arrested at his home in Amdo Golok, eastern Tibet, on September 11, 2008, most likely for his online writings. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

All of the writers detained since the start of the campaign in December have been targeted for writings published online, evidence of the continuing determination of authorities to control speech on the Internet—a clear violation of its citizens’ right under international law to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”

Harassing and Suppressing Critical Voices

Prior to the opening of the Olympic Games, writers and dissidents from Beijing and elsewhere in China were warned not to “cause trouble,” and were urged to stay away from the capital for the duration of the Games. Those who didn’t, the police said, would be placed under house arrest.

Most disturbingly for PEN, members of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC) were specifically targeted. Many were placed under house arrest or restricted from leaving their home cities, and still others living abroad have been prevented from entering Hong Kong or mainland China from August through today.

Zhou Yuanzhi, a freelance writer and ICPC member who was detained by the National Security Bureau of Zhongxiang City, Hubei Province, on May 3, 2008 on suspicion of “inciting subversion” for his critiques on social issues and official corruption. Zhou was released on May 15, 2008, but remained under house arrest throughout the duration of the Games. He is still forbidden from traveling beyond his home city without police authorization, prohibited from communicating with strangers, and banned from publishing.

ICPC board member Yu Jie was guarded by police at his residence in Beijing and followed every time he left his home for the duration of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Authorities even went so far as to “chauffeur” Yu when he needed transportation.

Ms. Liu Di was placed under house arrest in Beijing from July 31 to August 25, and from September 5 to September 18.

Several ICPC members were warned not to visit Beijing or leave the Chinese mainland, and have had their passports taken away. Board member Zhao Dagong, who lives in Shenzhen, was only permitted to visit his parents in Heibei Province after the Paralympic Games had ended on September 17, but as of publication of this report is still not permitted to visit Beijing and is not allowed to leave China. No expiry date for these restrictions has been given.

ICPC Deputy Secretary-General Jiang Bo, who is based in Shanghai, had his passport confiscated during the Olympics. It was returned, along with his travel documents to Hong Kong, and he was informed that he would be permitted to visit Beijing after China’s National Day on October 1.

Hangzhou-based writer He Yongqin, also known as Wen Kejian, and Qingdao-based lawyer Li Jianqiang, who represented 10 imprisoned writers before being disbarred, were restricted from traveling outside their home cities during the period of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, but were informed that their plans to travel to Beijing and abroad would not be curtailed in October.

Journalist Zan Aizong, who lives in Hangzhou, was barred from leaving Shanghai’s Pudong airport to attend a conference on human rights in Geneva on August 31.

Several members of ICPC who live overseas, but some of whom hold Chinese passports, were denied entry into China and Hong Kong. Dr. Zhang Yu, the Writers in Prison Committee Coordinator and former Secretary-General, who resides in Sweden, was denied entry to Hong Kong in April, just days before the arrival of the Olympic Torch there.

Ms. Sheng Xue, a Canadian citizen and member of both ICPC and PEN Canada, was denied entry into Hong Kong on August 7, despite being permitted to enter many times before. Ms. Sheng has not been permitted to enter mainland China, however, since her involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy movement.
Dr. Zhang Xiaogang, the current Secretary-General of ICPC who holds an Australian passport, and Dr. Gui Minhai, an alternate board member from Germany, were denied entry to Hong Kong during the Games. On August 5, they easily entered Hong Kong on their way to a conference on human rights in China taking place in Taiwan. On August 12, on their way back to Australia and Germany, they were denied entry into Hong Kong. Gui was deported back to Taiwan the same day, while Zhang was deported to Australia the following day after he refused to pay for another ticket back to Taiwan. Authorities claimed they were denied entry after visiting a week previously because there were different measures in place during the Olympic Games.

In an unsettling example of post-Olympic restrictions, Zhang Xiaogang attempted to enter mainland China from Hong Kong on a visa on October 8, but was stopped by police in the Luohu Border Control Station of Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. He was detained, and his luggage and person were searched by authorities. Several of his books and magazines were confiscated before he was sent back to Hong Kong.

Other well-known writers who are not members of the Independent Chinese PEN Center have been targeted for harassment as well. Tibetan writer, journalist, and poet Tsering Woeser, who resides in Beijing with her husband, writer Wang Lixiong, heeded warnings by authorities to leave Beijing and decided to travel to Lhasa to visit family during the Olympics. She arrived on August 17. On August 21, she was detained by police and held for eight hours. Woeser was accused of photographing the army and police presence, which has been heavy in the capital since the uprisings there in March. She was forced to leave her mother’s home and return to Beijing on August 23. Woeser is still facing restrictions on her movements.

Human rights activist and online writer Zeng Jinyan, wife of jailed writer Hu Jia, disappeared from Beijing on August 7. It was later discovered that she was being held in Dalian, outside the capital. She was detained for the duration of the Games, and was not released until August 23, one day before the closing ceremony. Zeng remains under residential surveillance at her Beijing home, along with her baby daughter, Qianci.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The temporary regulations for foreign journalists operating in China before, during, and after the Olympics, which went into effect on January 1, 2007, are scheduled to expire today. The rules were meant to allow all foreign journalists to speak with any source on any subject, and to bring down the barriers that so tightly constrain the flow of information in China.

PEN American Center, PEN Canada, and the Independent Chinese PEN Center have determined that despite early hopes and promises, the Chinese government failed to live up to the letter and the spirit of its commitments to the International Olympic Committee, the media, and to Chinese citizens and the world community throughout the period of temporary regulations. Instead, the overall climate for freedom of expression deteriorated in the final ten months of the temporary regulations, with a particularly disheartening push to suppress this right while the eyes of the world were on the country from August 8 to August 24, 2008. There are more writers and journalists in prison in China today than there were in December 2007, and dissident writers and journalists who are not in prison face serious restrictions on their movements and on their ability to speak and publish freely.

In early October, research by the OpenNet Initiative revealed that the Chinese government has been spying on dissidents and other web users utilizing the chat software TOM-Skype, a joint venture between Skype’s American parent company eBay and the Chinese company TOM Group. Authorities have reportedly been tracking users typing key words such as Tibet, Falun Gong, and democracy. Meanwhile, “The Great Firewall of China” remains in place, preventing Chinese citizens from freely accessing the Internet and subjecting those who seek to explore politically sensitive matters and ideas—and to make their voices heard on such matters—to harassment, detention, and possible imprisonment. Clearly, our Chinese colleagues, and China’s citizens as a whole, have yet to see evidence of the human rights improvements their government pledged in order to secure the Olympic Games.

Did the world miss an opportunity to persuade China to abide by these pledges? Or was it naïve to believe that hosting the Olympics would lead China to allow its citizens greater freedoms? As the Olympic spotlight fades, these are questions that the International Olympics Committee, governments, and non-governmental organizations around the world should be carefully considering.

Meanwhile, PEN remains committed to protecting the right of our Chinese colleagues and all Chinese citizens to seek, receive, and impart information freely and regardless of frontiers; to express themselves without inhibition or fear of persecution or imprisonment; and to travel and associate without restrictions.

We therefore call on the Chinese government to:

  • Extend and make permanent the temporary press regulations established for the Olympic Games and include domestic journalists within these guarantees;
  • Release all writers and journalists currently imprisoned and stop detaining, harassing, and censoring writers and journalists;
  • End Internet censorship, and reform laws used to imprison writers and journalists and suppress freedom of expression.