Olympics mean a softer touch for China’s foreign correspondents, maybe

Ed Cody of the Washington Post’s Beijing bureau has written an interesting story on a new decree from the Chinese government that will grant foreign correspondents in China significantly more freedom in the months before and after the games. The article is interesting for a few reasons. First, it suggests that the government might be working out a relatively more sophisticated approach to media management for the games; second it provides a window into some of the media management tactics they are preparing for; and third it explains how the current control regime has been more obnoxious than effective. Cody writes:

A decree from Premier Wen Jiabao’s government said foreign reporters, whether assigned here permanently or visiting for the Olympics, will be allowed to roam most of the country freely and report without interference by local police or propaganda officials from Jan. 1, 2007, until Oct. 17, 2008. The Games are in August 2008.

As explained by Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao, the new rules departed clearly — if temporarily — from long-standing orders. They also marked a significant watershed for China, where information has long been treated as government property to be manipulated and controlled by propaganda officials.

***

If followed by authorities across the country, [the decree would] for more than 21 months eliminate some major barriers to accurate reporting about China: regulations that legally oblige foreign correspondents to work through local propaganda officials when gathering news. Those restrictions, when followed, have limited frank conversation with Chinese people and emphasized the official version of news.

I find this interesting because it suggests that the Chinese authorities are thinking a step beyond their normal control-oriented approach to information management. I don’t think much of how the Chinese government manages information. (I’m sure that statement does not come as a profound shock to regular readers of this site.) All governments want to control information and public perception, and all try to devise systems for doing so that reflect the realities of society, technology and the media environment. I think the Chinese government still drags along too much baggage from before China’s opening and subsequent economic boom, and the attendant explosion in the media and public access to information and communication tools. The CCP model still favors brute control of information over effective communication, and it shows in both domestic and international situations where better communication might be helpful.

This is not just about the Internet. I am not a utopian when it comes to the power of the Internet to free people’s minds. If all Internet censorship in China was lifted tomorrow there would not be any significant change in China. (For some interesting analysis of related topics, see Ann Condi’s recent guest post in Danwei and Howard French’s comparison of the English and Chinese language versions Wikipedia, although the latter has also been fisked by Dave at Peking Duck.) But while the “un-story” approach works OK when there is a relatively small number of centralized media and limited options for personal communication, it works much less well in an era of blogging, instant-messaging, SMS and extensive international contact. At best China’s government would abandon the information control approach in favor of something more progressive. At the very least it needs to be supplemented by more effective communication. I do think the Chinese government is working on this, but they have a ways to go.

I don’t for a moment believe the decree means that the government has abandoned its traditional approach to information management. It still hasn’t had anything meaningful to say about yesterday’s massive service interruption at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, for instance. But giving foreign correspondents more leeway in the run-up to the Olympics would accomplish two things. First, it’s a PR move in and of itself. “See? We’re improving!” But there is a second, deeper side to the move as well, and it has to do with what kind of incident would make the Olympics a PR failure for the Chinese government. And make no mistake: the Olympic Games are the most important external PR endeavor the modern Chinese government has ever embarked upon.

Of course others know this. Because its a global event that attracts the eyes and ears of the world, the Olympic Games –especially the more popular summer games– are a convenient platform for people who have an issue they want to publicize. That’s why the US and Russia used boycotts of each others’ Olympics in 1980 and ’84 to make political points, why the 1976 Olympics were targeted by terrorists, and why any Olympic city is on guard against attempts to hijack the games for other agendas.

China is, as we in the biz say, “issues rich”. And the Beijing Olympics will be the most “issues rich” (i.e. problematic) games since Los Angeles in 1984 (the Soviet boycott). No matter how you slice it, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens just don’t compare. (When the Olympics were held in Barcelona, not all that long ago, Deng Xiaoping had just made the “southern tour” that marked China’s post-Tian’anmen reopening.) Aboriginal rights are great and all, but my China issues list is longer than the list of people Koko wanted to execute in The Mikado. Where do you want to start? FLG? Tibet? Uighur rights? Pollution? Censorship? Jailed journalists? Corruption? Rural poverty and migration? Activists are already sharpening their press releases and polishing their signs.

But that’s expected. There will always be some kind of scandal. Atlanta even had a bombing. The games can survive a scandal, a protest, or even a bomb. What they can’t survive is a bad police reaction to such an event. Let’s put it this way: If a bunch of people assemble in Tian’anmen Square with pro-FLG banners, it’ll be annoying for the Chinese government, but not a disaster for the games. Even if a sweet-faced teenage girl douses herself in gasoline and sets herself on fire it will be tragic and sad, but not necessarily a catastrophe for the games. It is the government’s own actions during the games that will speak loudest, especially overreaction. If the Chinese cops bust up the demonstration, roust the TV crews and photographers and impound tapes and films it will then become a disaster, not least because every person in the vicinity with a modern mobile phone, Chinese or foreign, will have pictures and probably video anyway. (And if you want to start another revolution in China,  the best way to do it would be to try confiscating people’s mobile phones.) A harsh reaction means the story stops being about the protestors or even the originating issue and starts being about the what a bunch of thugs the Chinese government is and why did we give them the Olympics again? That’s a discussion the government will find hard to control once it gains momentum.

I’m pretty sure the Chinese government and BOCOG know this, and if they don’t, their PR company –one of the major internationals and a competitor of my firm– is probably telling them (unless they’ve been told to keep their mitts off of strategy and are just grinding out press releases about the Fuwa). So telling authorities around the country to go easy on foreign correspondents is not only good PR now, but its a defensive move to guard against scandal escalation.

There is however, a potential problem: provincial authorities have a flexible approach toward implementing central government decrees. Imagethief is willing to put real money down on the square that says, when push comes to shove, that provincial authorities will still detain and roust foreign correspondents that poke their noses into sensitive areas during the games, threats to call the Foreign Ministry notwithstanding. And hanging over this is the wide latitude for interpretation of what kind of reportage contravenes Chinese law. Also, the government probably knows that attempts to control the moves of something like ten thousand foreign correspondents will be like herding notepad and tape-recorder carrying cats. Indeed, Cody adds:

In practice, foreign reporters in recent years frequently have managed to report on their own, speaking directly with Chinese people while using subterfuge and stealth to avoid getting caught by local police. Those who have been spotted, however, often have been detained, lectured and forced to write confessions that they broke the law. In many cases, their notes and camera equipment have been confiscated. At times, they have been shoved around by police.

I believe the Washington Post has been on the receiving end of some of that shoving around, and I perhaps detect a bit of personal annoyance creeping through that paragraph. But maybe it’s just my conspiratorial nature. Since they don’t do much business coverage I don’t know any of the WaPo journalists personally, although I do like their China reporting.

The  Chinese government is also, of course, making sure that the police are up to snuff on English and prepared with talking points (well, “dialogues” actually) in case they do run into any nosey foreign correspondents:

A manual published by the Public Security Ministry and handed out to Beijing police, who are studying English in preparation for the Olympics, contained a dialogue making clear how ministry officials believe reporting should be approached. It described a hypothetical situation in which a policeman comes upon a foreign reporter inquiring about Falun Gong:

“But Falun Gong has nothing to do with the games,” the policeman says.

“What does that matter?” the reporter replies.

“It’s beyond the permit.”

“What permit?”

“You’re a sports reporter. You should only cover the games.”

“But I’m interested in Falun Gong.”

“It’s beyond the limit of your coverage and illegal. As a foreign reporter in China, you should obey China law and do nothing against your status.”

“Oh, I see. May I go now?”

“No. Come with us.”

Oh dear. Better work on that last part.

A few hints for the Chinese authorities before the games. First, nothing is “beyond the permit”. Journalists are coming with their own agendas and they are going to write stories about anything and everything. When an emerging, baggage-laden country like China not only hosts the games, but intentionally makes them into a global coming-out party, every single issue in the country is automatically connected with the games. Like it or not. Covering the Olympics, which the Chinese government itself would probably admit are much more than a “sporting event”, is not just sports reporting. If the cops run in every journalist they find asking questions about topics the government finds uncomfortable, they’ll either build some new jails or have a fleet of 747s standing by to deport journalists who have their credentials revoked. I’d say start drafting the self-criticisms now and have them waiting in a stack ready to sign. That will save time.

In the interest of making a contribution to the success of the games, Imagethief humbly suggests the following, improved approach to media management. It not only presents a better solution, it also more accurately reflects how an overworked foreign correspondent –especially one unused to working in China– might react to the situation:

Cop: “But Falun Gong has nothing to do with the games.”

Reporter:
“Everything has to do with the games, Sherlock. That’s how it works.”

Cop: “It’s beyond the permit.”

Reporter: “Permit? What kind of happy horseshit is that?”

Cop: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand your snappy English vernacular. You’re a sports reporter. You should only cover the games.”

Reporter: “Say, Kojak, why don’t call up the Foreign Ministry? Tell them I’m going to publish a story on how local cops are harassing accredited journalists doing their jobs.”

Cop: “It’s beyond the limit of your coverage and illegal. As a foreign reporter in China, you should obey China law and do nothing against your status.”

Reporter: “My status? My status is pissed off, buddy. I gotta deadline here.”

Cop: “Look! Over there! It’s Zhang Ziyi! And she’s naked!

Problem solved. The Foreign Ministry can send payment to me care of this website.

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