Failing to Deliver: An Olympic-Year Report Card on Free Expression in China
In order to win the privilege of hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, the People’s Republic of China pledged to improve its human rights record. This pledge included specific commitments to expand press freedom and protect such fundamental rights as the right to freedom of expression as it is guaranteed under international law and China’s own constitution.
On December 10, 2007, PEN American Center, PEN Canada and the Independent Chinese PEN Center launched “We Are Ready for Freedom of Expression,” a campaign aimed at holding China’s leadership to these commitments. PEN’s campaign specifically called on the Chinese government to:
- release all writers and journalists currently imprisoned and stop detaining, harassing, and censoring writers and journalists in China;
- end Internet censorship and reform laws used to imprison writers and journalists and suppress freedom of expression; and
- abide by its pledge that “there will be no restrictions on media reporting and movement of journalists up to and including the Olympic Games.”
Seven months later, we are unable to report significant improvements in any of these areas.
What we have witnessed instead has been a grinding and relentless campaign to jail or silence prominent dissident voices, including many of our colleagues from the Independent Chinese PEN Center, and new and brazen efforts to restrict or control domestic and international press. This report, issued one month before the Olympics open in Beijing, summarizes this discouraging lack of progress. It also offers glimpses of the vast, intricate nature of the suppression of human rights in China—visits to families of targeted dissidents, interference with personal cell phones and computers, waylaying individuals on their way to meetings and banquets; niggling, widespread surveillance and dogged harassment often followed by detention, arrest, and in some cases, very long prison sentences.
In bidding for the Olympic Games and in offering the requisite assurances of its intentions to protect and expand basic human rights, China invited just this kind of scrutiny. In turn the nations of the world, as they send their representatives to the Beijing Olympics, should not shy away from evaluating China on the terms under which it secured the Games. With time running out, we are asking the international community to join us in holding the Chinese government accountable for its assurances that it would safeguard and expand the rights of its people.
Jailing and Silencing Writers
When we launched the “We Are Ready” campaign, PEN was following the cases of 40 writers and journalists imprisoned in China. Though three of these have since been released, nine more have been detained:
- 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.”
- 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.
- Jamyang Kyi: Prominent Tibetan writer, reporter, activist and singer detained April 1, 2008.
- 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.
- Chen Daojun: Freelance writer and journalist, detained May 9, 2008 and charged with “inciting splittism.”
- Guo Quan: Writer and former professor of literature at Nanjing Normal University, detained May 17, 2008 and released May 28, 2008.
- 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.
- Zheng Hongling: Writer and retired worker, detained June 9, 2008 after publishing articles on her experiences from the May 12, 2008 earthquake.
- Huang Qi: Cyber-dissident, writer, director and co-founder of the Tianwang Human Rights Center, detained on June 10, 2008.
Today, seven months later, we are following the cases of 44 writers and journalists who are in Chinese prisons in violation of their right to freedom of expression.
In addition to this disturbing increase in the number of imprisoned writers and journalists, the Chinese government has intensified its ongoing harassment of dissident voices and writers. We are particularly distressed that many of our colleagues at the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC) have been targeted in this crackdown. This past December, authorities halted ICPC’s annual awards dinner by paying visits to members and posting guards outside the doors of many to prevent them from traveling to Beijing. The evening’s two scheduled honorees, writers Liao Yiwu and Li Jianhong, were briefly held under house arrest. On June 4, the distinguished writer, dissident, and former ICPC president and current board member Dr. Liu Xiaobo was manhandled by police from the National Security Unit of the Beijing Public Security Bureau, and is now reportedly under surveillance at his home in Beijing.
There is also increasing evidence of an organized effort to restrict movement of dissidents and writers to keep them from meeting freely with international observers before and during the Olympics. On June 29, Teng Biao and Li Baiguang, two human rights lawyers and ICPC members living in Beijing, were detained in order to prevent them from meeting with U.S. Congressmen Christopher H. Smith and Frank R. Wolf, who had invited them to dinner to discuss human rights issues. Li Baiguang was held for three days in Huairou, a Beijing suburb, and Teng Biao, whose passport had been confiscated by authorities earlier in the year, was released but placed under house arrest.
Setting Legal Traps
The majority of writers and journalists currently imprisoned in China have been snared by China’s far-reaching, zealous efforts to restrict freedom of expression on the Internet. Of the 44 writers currently imprisoned in China, 30 are being held for writings they posted on the Internet or disseminated electronically, including Shi Tao, Wang Xiaoning, and Li Zhi, who were all convicted after U.S. Internet provider Yahoo! provided the Chinese government with their user information. All nine of the writers detained since December 10 (Wang Dejia, Hu Jia, Jamyang Kyi, Zhou Yuanzhi, Chen Daojun, Guo Quan, Feng Zhenghu, Zeng Hongling, and Huang Qi) have been targeted for their online writings.
Three laws are routinely misused to try and sentence writers, journalists, and cyberdissidents in China: 1) subversion; 2) revealing state secrets; and 3) splittism or separatism. Hu Jia, a freelance reporter and blogger, is serving a 3 ½-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” for five articles he published and two press interviews. Huang Qi, who was detained on June 10, is being held on suspicion of “illegally holding state secrets” for writings published on his organization’s web site. The splittism charge, used most often against Tibetans and Uighurs, has recently crossed ethnic lines to include Han Chinese who publicly defend Tibetan and Uighur rights. Chen Daojun, a freelance writer and journalist detained May 9, 2008, has been formally charged with “inciting splittism” for an article he published declaring respect for the Tibetan people, defending their basic rights, and condemning the government’s violent crackdown on protesters.
China’s vast Internet censorship is a violation of the right of its citizens under international law to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Its vaguely-defined subversion, state secrets, and incitement laws have long been used to prosecute writers and journalists simply for practicing their professions. Rather than taking concrete steps to ease Internet restrictions and reform the laws routinely misused to jail writers and dissidents, China has continued to brandish and wield these weapons against individual writers in the weeks leading up to the Olympic Games. It has also expanded efforts to deny its citizens access to information on sensitive subjects on the Internet, shutting down many sites in the past seven months, including a site for the Tiananmen Mothers—an organization of family members of those killed or imprisoned during the 1989 crackdown—and Uighur Online, a site aimed at promoting understanding between Han Chinese and ethnic Uighurs.
Restricting the media
When bidding for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government made a specific promise to open up the country to free media reporting, stating “there will be no restrictions on media reporting and movement of journalists up to and including the Olympic Games.” The unrest in Tibet and the May 12th earthquake, however, have revealed just the opposite: a government intent on controlling media access to important stories and on restricting the access its own people have to domestic and international media coverage.
During the crackdown on protests in Tibetan areas that began in March, government-instigated interruptions in telephone and Internet service in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and other Tibetan areas significantly hindered the flow of first-hand reports and other information as violence spread and the number of deaths rose. A recent Human Rights Watch report confirms that authorities are now confiscating mobile phones, cameras, fax machines and computers, monitoring calls, censoring and blocking emails and Internet content, and harassing Tibetans to prevent them from relaying information inside and outside of Tibet.
Since March, only a few journalists have been allowed into Tibetan areas on three 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 have been detained and turned away. Meanwhile, satellite broadcasts focusing on events in Tibet have been jammed in Beijing and other Chinese cities, and foreign news sites such as the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) have been shut down entirely or selectively, leaving China’s citizens without access to the full story about monumental political and human rights issues in their own country.
We are now beginning to see similar controls exerted on reporting from areas affected by the May 12 earthquake. At first the government, of necessity, allowed an unusual level of live coverage of rescue efforts. But now that attention is beginning to turn to questions that are potentially embarrassing for Chinese officials, there is 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 and detained when they tried to report from collapsed schools in Dujiangyan, Sichuan Province. They were reportedly told by a police officer that “You cannot report anywhere in Dujiangyan. You must leave.” The six were then ordered out of the city, despite the fact that they held passes explicitly stating that reporting was allowed in the area.
The world knows of many of these heavy-handed efforts to restrict press freedom because they have been directed at the international media. Meanwhile, China’s domestic media remains under the thumb of the Propaganda Department of the Chinese government and must follow its directives. Chinese reporters are not even included in the pre-Olympic rules that are supposedly meant to allow foreign journalists to travel and report freely. Those who wander beyond the official boundaries have been 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.
Conclusion and Recommendations
PEN American Center, PEN Canada, and the Independent Chinese PEN Center are seriously concerned that rather than improving, the climate for freedom of expression has actually measurably deteriorated over the past year, in full view of the international community. There are more writers and journalists in prison in China today than there were seven months ago, 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. Internet censorship and other laws such as subversion and inciting separatism or splittism remain in force and continue to be used specifically to deny the universally-guaranteed right to freedom of expression. China’s promises to allow media to report freely throughout China have been undermined by its attempts to manage international coverage from Tibet and earthquake-affected areas and by its refusal to extend any new protections or freedoms whatsoever to Chinese journalists.
If the Olympics come and go and there are no improvements in these areas, China will only have succeeded in portraying itself in the most unflattering light possible, thus reinforcing doubts about its commitments to fundamental human rights.
With one month remaining before the Olympic Games open in Beijing, however, it is not too late for China to make good on the commitments it offered its own citizens and the international community when it announced its desire to host the 2008 Games. When all is said and done, it is not by staging a successful Olympic Games, but by honoring these commitments that China will bolster its international stature as a leader among nations.
We therefore recommend that the Chinese government:
Release all writers and journalists currently imprisoned and stop detaining, harassing, and censoring writers and journalists in China;
End Internet censorship, and reform laws used to imprison writers and journalists and suppress freedom of expression; and
Abide by its pledge that “there will be no restrictions on media reporting and movement of journalists up to and including the Olympic Games.”
We further recommend that nations participating in the Olympic Games
Use every available occasion to press the Chinese government to release all writers and journalists imprisoned in China before the Olympics;
reform laws used to detain, harass, and censor writers and journalists; and lift all restrictions on all media up to and through the Olympic Games;
Seek viable and meaningful ways to hold China accountable to the pledges it made in securing the Olympic Games to improve its human rights record; and
Secure clear assurances from the Chinese government that no Chinese citizens, Chinese or foreign journalists, athletes or spectators will be detained or otherwise prevented from expressing their views peacefully during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.