China tightening censorship in run-up to Party Congress

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Preparations are underway in Beijing for the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress. The Chinese authorities are taking steps to ensure stability and calm on the eve of the event.  Foreign and domestic reporters are being more closely monitored, and the Chinese media are being subjected to increased censorship.

Dutch journalist Remko Tanis is certain that several incidents involving foreign correspondents in China are linked to the 18th Party Congress in Beijing in October. Speaking to RNW, Tanis said, “the key policy of China’s current leader, Hu Jintao, is to maintain stability and calm, even if that requires force. Everything is designed to prevent even the tiniest incident. That’s more important than ever because there’s a change of leadership only once every decade.”
Hans van Moleman, correspondent for the Dutch daily de Volkskrant, agrees with Tanis. “Social stability is incredibly important. The Party is increasing censorship to take as few risks as possible with troublesome citizens. The upcoming change of power is playing a role in this, together with the Arab Spring (the wave of protests in the Arab world against widespread corruption, ed.).”
Beaten up
Tanis hit world headlines earlier this year after he was beaten up by plain clothes policemen in Panhe, a village on the southeastern coast of China. He was reporting about recent protests against government officials who were illegally selling land to property developers. A French reporter and his assistant were also molested.
In May, Melissa Chan, a reporter for the English version of the Arab TV network Al Jazeera, was expelled from China. It was the first time in 14 years that China deported a foreign journalist.
Both reporters emphasize that the Chinese authorities are also using subtle means to make it more difficult for them to do their work. Moleman, for instance, has had several run-ins with the public security police (PSB). “When I was in the Tibetan part of Sichuan,” he explains, “I was questioned a number of times and followed by plain clothes PSB officials. I spoke to them extensively, explaining that I was making a report about a nature reserve.”
“They refused to let me enter the area. So I told them to arrest me because I was going to go there anyway. In the end, they let me in on condition that I didn’t leave the main road and I didn’t stop to speak to local residents. But I had car trouble, so I had to stop.”
After Tanis’ assault, the waiban – the government department responsible for foreign journalists – invited him to come drink a cup of tea in Shanghai. “They wanted to know what had happened,” he explains. “They expressed their concern and reminded me that I had to obey the rules. But they didn’t tell me the rules I had violated that had provoked the assault. “
Moleman’s Tibetan interpreter was not spared either during the interrogation in Sichuan. He was subjected to strong intimidation tactics by the PSB. According to Moleman, they told the interpreter that he should never have taken the reporter there and they were going to monitor his movement. “It was unpleasant,” adds Moleman, “but it’s not the first time he’s been subjected to this type of treatment.”
It’s not only foreign reporters who are being affected by the crackdown. With only three months to go before the opening of the Party Congress, censorship is increasing in the Chinese media too. The Ministry of Propaganda, for instance, issued a directive prohibiting negative news and forbidding Chinese journalists from travelling outside their own region to do their work.
According to Tanis, “the upcoming change of power is affecting all levels of the Chinese administration. For local and provincial party officials, it’s more important than ever now to avoid negative reporting about their region. That could endanger their chances of getting a promotion. I think that’s one of the reasons for the crackdown in recent months.”
The incidents that Tanis and Moleman have been involved in have not affected their work, they say. “Over the past year, it’s become more difficult – but not impossible – for journalists to do their work,” explains Tanis. “These confrontations are proof that you’re in the right place and speaking to the right people. Otherwise the authorities wouldn’t become so nervous and intervene.”
Moelman agrees: “my interpreter, assistants and I have become adept at getting away before the thugs arrive. It’s best to be seen only for short periods in sensitive areas in China. Or maybe we’ve just been lucky up until now that nothing serious has happened to us.”