Sunday, July 27, 2008

China and its Friends

Geoffrey York,
BEIJING (Globe and Mail) – In a commentary in its Friday edition, the People's Daily made an extraordinary appeal to its readers. It urged the Chinese government and ordinary Chinese citizens to "befriend the media."

The People's Daily – the most venerable of China's propaganda organs – declared an unofficial ceasefire in China's frequent attacks on the foreign media. "To serve the media is to serve the Olympic games," it said. "To befriend the media is to befriend the audience… It is through the media that the audiences across the world are learning about the Olympics, China and Beijing."

You'll forgive me if my reaction to this friendship offer was a little skeptical. In fact, just a few hours after this commentary was published, the Chinese police were extremely unfriendly in their attitude towards journalists who dared to film and photograph the embarrassing scenes of chaos in Beijing when huge crowds of people jostled for the final Olympic tickets.

Several journalists from Hong Kong were manhandled, pushed, dragged and forcibly removed from the scene by the Chinese police because the police disliked their attempts to record the chaos. One journalist was detained by police, and another needed medical treatment after being shoved to the ground by police.

Yesterday, in a rare apology, a senior Olympic organizer summoned the Hong Kong media for a "tea meeting" in Beijing and admitted that the police may have "mishandled" the incident. "We deeply regret what happened," the official said.

Perhaps the apology was the first sign of the new attempts to "befriend" the media, but I remain skeptical. We in the foreign media were given our own nice-sounding guarantees when we were promised that we could report freely in China from Jan. 1, 2007, until October of this year. Instead, we found that we were still prohibited from entering many sensitive regions, including Tibet, the ethnically Tibetan regions of Western China, and finally the districts of Sichuan where grieving parents were protesting against the shoddy construction that led to the deaths of their children in collapsed schools. Dozens of foreign correspondents have been detained, harassed or even beaten by police since 2007 when the promise of freedom was issued.

Even the official Olympic broadcasters – including NBC and CBC – have been told that they can broadcast for only six hours a day at Tiananmen Square, and they are barred from conducting any live interviews with any guests at Tiananmen. When a German television network tried to do a live interview with guests at the Great Wall, dozens of police broke up the interview.

But there's another issue here, too. The Chinese authorities always assume that "friendship" is the ideal relationship between China and well-behaved foreigners. Western scholars, diplomats and journalists are often regarded as either "friends" or "enemies" of China, depending on their behavior.

The implicit message from the Chinese government is that those who praise the government are "friends of China," while those who criticize or expose problems are deemed "unfriendly" or even "enemies." Several U.S. scholars who supported human-rights groups have later found that they cannot obtain visas to visit China. Academics or journalists who praise China, meanwhile, are rewarded with entry visas, lavish publicity, and even honorary citizenship.

Personally, I'm uncomfortable with the notion that I should aspire to be a "friend" of China. Journalists who cover Parliament Hill do not aspire to be anointed as "friends" of the federal government. I never sought to be a friend of the Russian government when I was based in Moscow, and I never aimed for friendship with the Manitoba government when I was based in Winnipeg.

It should be possible for journalists or scholars to write about China without being deemed a friend or an enemy. A modest suggestion: could China see us as polite acquaintances who are free to observe without the pressures of friendship?OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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