Commentary

China well-versed in controlling flow of information

Updated: August 15, 2008, 6:12 PM ET
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

When a news event takes place in a closed society, there can be concern about the flow of information and whether communications are open and honest. When the event is the Beijing Olympics, it becomes an even greater concern, as China has positioned itself to show the world what it had become. The Chinese government promised an open press when it secured the Games. It even changed its press laws starting in January 2007, and said the changes would remain in effect through October 2008 when they would elapse.

For months, especially since protesters used the Olympic torch run as a platform to demonstrate, China has attempted to mute some of the potential controversies. Some people believe China is a repressive regime. Others want China to have more religious freedom highlighting the Dalai Lama in Tibet. Some are concerned about China's role in supporting the government of Sudan, which has been responsible for the worst case of genocide in the 21st century -- what the United Nations calls the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.

[+] EnlargeBeijing Press Center
AP Photo/Oded BaliltyBefore the Olympics began, the government blocked foreign journalists at the Main Press Center from using many Internet sites. After protests, the Chinese relaxed the restrictions.

In the wake of the tragedy surrounding the May 12 earthquake, China reportedly paid local residents to not discuss the inadequate construction of schools that collapsed killing so many schoolchildren. As the Olympics opening ceremony drew near, 16 Chinese police were killed by two attackers in the Muslim territory of Kashgar, far from Beijing in Northern China. It was in the same city where beggars and homeless people had been removed from the streets. Two days after the opening ceremony, 10 assailants and a security guard were killed in the wake of 12 bomb attacks in the same region where the police were killed six days earlier. Two Japanese journalists were beaten and detained after investigating the two incidents in northwestern China. The government apologized later. The terrible pollution in Beijing is widely reported in the Western press, as were all of the incidents above.

Shortly after the Olympics began, just hours after the brilliant opening ceremony at the Bird's Nest stadium, Todd and Barbara Bachman, in-laws of U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, along with their Chinese guide, were attacked by a Chinese man while visiting the 13th-century Drum Tower. Todd Bachman died from stab wounds, while his wife and the guide are recovering. This became a huge news story in the United States and Western media.

Bachman's murder was not mentioned in the main Chinese TV evening news but was reported by the official Xinhua News Agency. According to press reports, Chinese journalists reportedly were censored from tying the murder of Bachman to the Olympic Games. Several Chinese reporters at a news conference held by the U.S. men's volleyball team had their notebooks and at least one tape recorder confiscated afterward. The Chinese press generally reported the "murder of a tourist" and did not connect Bachman to the volleyball coach or cover the concerns of U.S. Olympians so widely covered in the US media.

A Google search resulted in 3,742 "related articles" in the Western media on the murder and its effects on the U.S. Olympic team, but the news was scarcely mentioned, or not at all, by Chinese Web sites. Where it was mentioned, it was mostly as the murder of a tourist and not related to the Olympics. Most of the sites that carried a story have now removed them. Xinhua has now removed the article which downplayed the murder as an "isolated case of extreme behavior."

It appears that the image and legacy of the Games are all-important to China, which has often rewritten its own history when its past did not suit it, especially after the Cultural Revolution, and later after Mao Zedong's death in 1976.

This could be part of that tradition -- to first downplay the murder then to begin removing references to it, eventually obliterating the incident from the history of these Games and polishing the possibly tarnished image of the Beijing Olympics.

The widely respected Human Rights Watch reported just before the Games opened that "the Chinese government has prohibited local Chinese-language media from publishing unflattering news ahead of the Games, leaving foreign media as the only source of factual reporting about a wide range of crucial issues in China today." But it also says foreign correspondents' work on investigative stories is hindered by "systematic surveillance, obstruction, intimidation of sources, and pressure on local assistants."

At one point before the Games started, Internet sites in the press center were restricted so journalists could not get access to human rights Web sites and those critical of China. The Chinese relaxed the restrictions after extensive media protests.

During the torch run protests, BBC Asia-Pacific contrasted the coverage of the same events in the Western press and the Chinese press:

The New York Times describes the torch's progress around San Francisco as an "elaborate game of hide-and-seek … as security officials secretly rerouted the planned torch relay, swarmed its runners with blankets of security and then whisked the torch to the airport in a heavily guarded motorcade."

The Washington Post editorialized that the "Chinese are seeing for themselves how public opinion around the world has been repulsed by their government's cynical and amoral foreign policy in places such as Sudan and Burma and by its repression of the Tibetan minority."

In China, Xinhua painted a generally positive picture with headlines including, "Olympic torch relay concludes in San Francisco without 'major incidents,' " and "Chinese ambassador: Olympic torch relay in San Francisco 'successful.' "

The protests were mentioned in Xinhua's main news story, where it reported: "At one point, Tibetan separatists tried to disrupt the torch relay. They tried to grab the torch, but were pushed back by police escorting the torch relay." Xinhua added: "Many San Francisco citizens expressed dismay at attempts to link the Olympic Games with politics."

China Daily, also state-run, had headlines including: "San Franciscans denounce disruptions."

The British media expressed concern about possible protests before the torch arrived in London. The Times ran headlines that "Police fear Olympic torch protests after China shootings in Tibet," and "Met on protest alert as Olympic torch lands." The Daily Mirror called the London portion of the torch's run a "disturbing farce," and said, "The oppressive security needed to protect the Olympic torch in London should ram home to China's dictators what the world really thinks of them."

Xinhua had several news stories about the London run. One began with "The unseasonable snow in London did little to dampen people's passion for Beijing's Olympic flame as large crowds lined the street to greet the torch relay on Sunday." It described the torch as a "sacred symbol of the Olympic spirit" spreading the "ideal of peace, friendship and progress." While it did publish several articles on the protests, the BBC said the main focus of the Xinhua coverage was the carnival-like atmosphere of the torch run.

There was no coverage in China of a series of demonstrations in cities around the world that took place about the time of the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing. In response to a call from Reporters Without Borders, several hundred demonstrators marched in Paris, ending across the street from the Chinese embassy. About 100 people demonstrated outside the Chinese embassy in Berlin. Reporters Without Borders also organized demonstrations in Rome, London, Madrid and Washington, D.C.

[+] EnlargeJohn Ray
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty ImagesJohn Ray, a British journalist and correspondent for Independent Television News, was detained briefly by Chinese police this week after he tried to report on a pro-Tibet protest, but he was then released.

In what the Guardian is calling "the clearest breach yet of the host nation's promise of free media access during the Games," Independent Television News journalist John Ray was detained as he attempted to cover a Free Tibet protest close to the main Olympic zone. Ray was dragged along the ground and forcibly restrained for about 20 minutes. The IOC reacted Thursday, urging China to allow foreign journalists at the Games to report freely and not prevent them from doing their jobs.

Virtually ignored in China, there was a great deal of attention paid in the U.S. press when President Bush attended church in Beijing. There has been little coverage anywhere that Hua Huiqi, the head of an unrecognized Protestant church, was arrested while on his way to the same church service that Bush attended.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China is the association of Beijing-based professional journalists reporting on China for audiences around the world. They report for news organizations in more than two dozen countries. The FCCC welcomed the promise of open and free reporting in China as the Games approached. However, the FCCC says that foreign journalists have reported "270 cases of harassment, obstruction, and detention since the promise of openness was put into effect at the beginning of 2007." A recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) catalogues the ways in which journalists throughout China are censored, and argues that "China has fallen short of its Olympic promises."

In fact, the FCCC has reported five incidents since Aug. 7. In one of these incidents, police arrested two Associated Press reporters in the northwestern province of Xinjiang and erased the photos they had taken. One was arrested as he watched the opening ceremony on TV. Two Scandinavian journalists were stopped when they tried to interview peasants in Hebei province about the impact of the games on their activities.

The FCCC and the CPJ also charge that the IOC has not responded adequately. The report says: "Many journalists were optimistic, in fact, when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs eased restrictions on foreign media in January 2007. The new rules said foreign reporters could travel without government permission and could interview anyone who would speak with them. But the relaxed regulations crumbled when put to their first test: coverage of the ethnic demonstrations that led to rioting in Tibet in March 2008.

"As soon as anti-government demonstrations broke out, foreign journalists were expelled from Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Foreign travel to the Himalayas region was cut off after peaceful pro-independence demonstrations escalated into clashes with security forces and Han Chinese migrants. As the crisis grew, the government expanded its obstruction of foreign media into the neighboring provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan. In the six weeks after the March 14 crackdown in Tibet, more than 50 foreign journalists were obstructed while trying to report on the unrest."

The FCCC said its members had been "detained, prevented from conducting interviews, searched, and subjected to the confiscation or destruction of reporting materials" trying to report on the crisis in Tibet.

It was clear that China had a willing partner in wanting to control the flow of protests and such information in the International Olympic Committee which has, for generations, talked about "sport being above politics" in spite of the clear and obvious examples of the Games being used as a political platform, especially from 1968-84.

Even the USOC did next to nothing when the Chinese revoked the visa of Olympic gold medal speed skater Joey Cheek because of his humanitarian work as co-founder of Team Darfur. USOC CEO Jim Scherr said, "It is unfortunate, but it's between this government and Joey as a private citizen." The USOC did nothing to support Cheek -- the same man who carried the U.S. flag in the 2006 closing ceremony.

While so many were heartened that the U.S. team members chose Lopez Lomong, a Sudanese Lost Boy who fled the conflict there, to carry the U.S. flag in the opening ceremony, I had to think that this potentially very political statement left Scherr, the IOC and the Chinese icy.

In the United States and Western Europe, we have what we regularly call a free press without censorship. I remember going to China in 1976 as part of a delegation attempting to build relationships between China and the United States. In the delegation were leaders of most of the major religions in the United States, including Wallace D. Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad, then head of American's Black Muslims. The vast majority were members of traditional Christian churches.

We were the first Western group allowed into China after Mao's death and after the Tangshan earthquake that killed nearly 250,000 people. Frankly, we were surprised we were allowed to go forth in light of these developments. When we landed in Tokyo, we heard on the news that the so called "Gang of Four," including Mao's widow, had been arrested. Hours later we arrived in China but not the slightest sign of a news event of such magnitude was anywhere in the news. We were in Beijing, then Peking, for five days when the mayor told us, "We are so happy to have you that we are going to extend your stay and cancel your trip to Shanghai." We laughed to ourselves because we had heard that there were massive street demonstrations in Shanghai after the arrest of the "Gang of Four." One of the members of our delegation had access to the Voice of America where he heard the news broadcast. We were quite sure this was the reason. Suddenly, we were told that we were going to Nanking and then Shanghai. Our overnight train left without the slightest sign of the arrests and arrived in Nanking, where literally every wall of every street was covered in Chinese caricatures mocking the "Gang of Four" and praising their arrest. During lunch, we saw 250,000 people march down the streets of Nanking supporting the arrests.

Two days later, we arrived in Shanghai which was the "Gang of Four's" base of support. The Chinese had floated the news of their arrest there. When they realized they were able to maintain control, they let the rest of the country know what was happening. Now a big national demonstration, just a few days after the break of the news in Shanghai, was held in the streets of this city. We were taken to the center of the demonstration which was openly displaying support for the regime. Five million Chinese marched to the center of the city and filled streets for miles and miles.

It was a graphic example for all us of China's ability to control the press and population. In trying to undo this image with these Beijing Olympics, China had spent a fortune in preparation. But it cannot control news events. And the Chinese cannot control the U.S. media sending stories back talking not just about the beauty of the Games, but also what was going on in China. Just as it did in 1976 when people outside China knew what was going on inside before the Chinese people did. Our free press was then, and is now, able to tell the story, while the controlled press of China tells its people only what the government wants and only when it wants to partially open up.

Richard E. Lapchick is chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 13 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He is a regular ESPN.com commentator on issues of diversity in sport.

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com