Seminar on FoE in China and presentation of the book SILENCED

Report from Seminar and Book Launch

Seminar on FoE in China and presentation of the book SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship by Øystein Alme and Morten Vågen (ISBN 91-97384445 Amaryllis 2006)

Wednesday 23. August, Human Rights House, Oslo

Panel of speakers:
Øystein Alme, writer, manager of «Voice of Tibet»
Elin Sæther, scholarship holder, University of Oslo
Åshild Kolås, program leader, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo
Torbjørn Færøvik, journalist, writer and China expert

Chair: Carl Morten Iversen, secretary general, Norwegian PEN
Minutes: Elisabet W. Middelthon, board member, Norwegian PEN

Norwegian PEN president, Kjell Olaf Jensen, welcomed all participants to the seminar.  Carl Morten Iversen introduced the panel and gave the floor to Øystein Alme.

Øystein Alme has been the manager of «Voice of Tibet», a short-wave radio station based in Oslo, for 10 years.  The channel is an important voice in the passing on of information about the situation in China, and is being listened to by, among others, the Security Council at the U.N.  China has pledged to abide by the same international declarations on freedom of the press and freedom of expressions as we do in Norway.  However, the Communist Party has a monopoly on almost all communication and exercise strict control and censorship.

In SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship, Alme gives a summary of his experiences with «Voice of Tibet» for the past 10 years.  The several examples of the scrambling of these broadcasts by Chinese authorities, demonstrate Chinese authorities extreme sensitivity towards uncensored material.

The book lists China´s national and international obligations.  China views any criticism of breaches on human rights as a mingling in internal affairs, and support all countries, e.g. Zimbabwe, with equally strict regulations on free expression and censorship.

New technology is increasingly influencing the daily lives of the Chinese.  Internet, electronic mail and text messages (SMS) are available.  However, the big search engines, like Yahoo and Google, are cooperating with the authorities and have accepted their demands regarding control of all electronic communications.  There are many examples of censorship and subsequent prosecution  of the users of new technology.  Printed media, like the «Tibet Daily», is for the Communist Party, and not for the people.

Journalist writing about corruption risk arrests and jail sentences up to 10 years, a fact that leads to self-censorship.  Still, the limits for what you can write are constantly being pushed.  However, people in China receive more information today than ten years ago, even though the authorities do all they can to prevent it.

The international society holds some power of influence.  With the 2008 Olympic Games as Chinas big exibition to the world, demonstrating their wish to appear as an international super-power, NGOs all over the world will try to influence the authorities.  China will be more attentive now and the Party Congress next fall will send important signals regarding China´s future strategy.  Consequently, this «train» is moving now.

What is China afraid of? Why are they afraid of a small radio station like «Voice of Tibet»?  Evidently, all information that brings alternative news, other that what you hear from state controlled media, makes the Chinese population aware of the fact that they are being deceived.  That is why all critical voices are being censored and punished.

Between 20 and 25 thousand foreign journalists are expected to visit China and Beijing in August 2008.  SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship has been written in order to demonstrate the importance of free access to information.  As we are approaching the 2008 Olympics, free access for journalists to write about a variety of important topics, the hindring of censorship, reprisals and serious breaches on freedom of expression, will be increasingly important in a country with 1,3 billion people.

Elin Sæther desribed the book as very interesting, demonstrating that «Voice of Tibet» is an important and brave radio channel.

She pointed to the fact that development of the Chinese society had not been at a stand still after Mao.  Chinese economy was previously the main reason that the media were financially dependant on the state, but the authorities have gradually withdrawn subsidies and allowed for more financial independence.  Chinese media are now more in tune with the market economy.  It is no longer possible to print four pages of party propaganda in the newspapers – they have been forced to become more interesting and entertaining.  This is a new trend which has been evolving gradually and the people behind it are writers and journalists who engage themselves in the future of the Chinese society.  The Tian An Men Massacre in 1989 was a set-back for free expressions, but that situation has gradually improved during the 1990ies.

Journalists wish to represent the voice of the people.  They want to write about problems facing the society, not only so called positive, state-edited news.  They want to write about corruption, AIDS, health problems, etc.  There are severe restrictions regarding how these themes may be treated in the media.  Any criticism of party policy is forbidden.  It is therefore important to find ways to present these topics so that they pass through the censors, without too much self-censorship.

It is also important to keep in mind that media coverage varies throughout the world, and that also western media experience censorship and self-censorship.

Åshild Kolås has worked as a Tibet-researcher since 1997.  She first visited China and Tibet in 1988.

She started by saying that it is difficult to generalize about «China» and «the Chinese», even about «Chinese authorities».  Based on personal experiences and extensive field work in Tibet (11 months in Yunnan 2002-3)  she assessed the book as being both engaging and well written.  It is not easy to visualize a topic like freedom of expression and it is not easy to get attention in the media on this topic.

She agreed to the main conclusions in the book: There is a great potential for positive change in the Chinese society.  She also agreed that there are many idealistic, Chinese journalists, but that the federal authorities are also interested in uncovering corruption on a lower, local level.  Local, illegal tax-collection does not benefit the federal authorities.  Consequently, it is the local media that uncover corruption, and this is accepted by the federal authorities.

Chinese authorities have used lots of resources on the development of the internet, also outside the big cities.  In Yunnan, Kolås registererd internet-cafés on «almost every streetcorner», but most internet users were more inclined to play games than engage in serious business or seeking out information.  There was a need for information, and the locals were obviously aware of the fact that this need was not covered through available newspapers and other news media, in particular coverage of «sensitive» topics.

To a certain extent the Chinese are aware of the fact that official media do not give neutral information about what is going on outside China.  This became particularly obvious during the SARS-epidemic, when there was a serious lack of information and, consequently, more or less trustworthy rumors were flourishing.  Information came and went through the grapewine.

When Kolås first arrived in China in 1998, she also witnessed other methods to sustain «law and order».  But harassment always takes place behind closed doors and the location of those closed doors vary from society to society.

Torbjørn Færøvik said the book was both important and practical.  But China has a long way to go, he said.

There is a big difference, also for journalists, between a brief visit in Beijing or Shanghai, and a longer stay where you travel through the country and maybe get a chance to grasp how huge and fantastic this manysided country is.  Walking the streets of Shanghai today is like walking in a big parade.  In the «olden» days, all you could see were people dressed up in Mao uniforms, now it´s all neon-light commercials.

Many things have happened during the past 30 years, both financially and politically.  But changes are hard to measure.  How do you measure – what are the terms of reference?

The degree of freedom of expression is greater today than at any point during the years since the Communist Party seized power in 1949.  There is a new situation for free expression in most fields of society.  Previously, «dangerous» ideas could only be thought, but now you can speak out.  100 million Chinese have access to the internet.  They can read newspapers from all over the world, they can listen to the BBC.  Almost everyone owns a cellphone.  When Mao died there were only one telephone per 800.000 inhabitants. (must be checked).

What happens when 1,3 billion people get access to new technology?  The authorities want to keep control, but technology is always a few steps up front.  This is a loosing battle for the authorities.  Every year millions of people visit China.  They travel throughout the country  and people are influenced by new ideas.  The Chinese people act and think in a long, historic perspective. Only 30 years have passed since Mao died.  We must admit that a positive development has taken place in China.  Six years ago China was selected to arrange the 2008 Olympics.  Let us hope that this will contribute to even more openness in China.

However, during the next two years, the situation will tighten up – we will experience a Gorbatsjov-effect.  The Chinese leaders are between 60 and 65 years old.  From now on, the authorities will be much more attentive and will hit hard on any signs of political opposition.

How should a strategy to influence China in connection with the Olympics be designed?

What should be the angle of international campaigns in order for these to be successful?

25 000 journalists will visit China during the Olympic Games.  The authorities will gradually tighten communication possibilities and working conditions for journalists during the years preceding the Olympics.  Simultaneously, Chinese authorities will have to listen to international signals focusing on (the lack of) human rights and freedom of expression.  If conditions become less strict, it will be because the authorities are pragmatic and see that it pays off.

Torbjørn Færøvik is not very optimistic regarding the 2008 Olympics, human rights and free expression.  Foreign criticism is perceived as unreasonable meddling with domestic affairs.  There is a fundamental insecurity regarding what can happen with such a great number of foreign – and domestic – visitors in Beijing during the Olympics.  Therefore, the authorities need total control.

It is important to try to influence international companies like Yahoo and Google, etc. and to focus critically on their kneeling for the authorities, eagerly trying to achieve full access to the huge, Chinese market.  Critical voices outside China should be activated and supported.

The western world must be aware that the outcome of advocacy may be limited.  Changes in Chinese society will develop as an inner process, not through pressure from the outside world.  For the Chinese, it is important not to «loose face», consequently «noisy» campaigns may often be counterproductive.  These cultural differences must be considered.

«Quiet diplomacy» may work far better than official diplomacy.  Norwegian politicians have a tendency to exaggerate the importance of their talks with the authorities in China, and through Norwegian media one gets the impression that Norway is important and may influence China.  The western world should be aware of the fact that economic development is more important than human rights to the Chinese at present.  The Chinese countryside is still in the middle ages, and the contrast to the high-tech cities is incomprehensible.

Conclusions and recommendations

Most people in China are now better off, but there is a wide gap between the extremely poor and the incomprehensibly rich.  A modern Chinese city dweller easily spends NOK 3.000 (500 euro) on a dinner, whereas NOK 212 (about 25 euros) constitutes the yearly income for a poor farmer.

Economic relaxation and development and new technology will be of great importance for future development in China.  The curbing of free expression has already started.  So far, 70 cases of harassment against foreign journalists in Beijing have been registered.  Tibet is far worse off than China, hence the Olympics may be even more important for Tibet than for China.

There is also an internal migration taking place in China.  Over the past 30 years the Chinese have migrated from west to east and 250 million people will follow.  In this case the valves have to be gradually opened to allow for this huge process which will take place over the next 20 – 30 years. Consequently, our expectations regarding what we may be able to accomplish must be realistic.

Some elements that may be influential:

1. The wide gap between the poor and the rich
2. As very few people will benefit from economic growth, there will be more focus on free expression and freedom of organzation in future.
3. People wishing to work for these rights are under strict control and repression at present.  There will be no sudden, total change, but we can observe that several structures are changing.
4. Strangely enough, harassment may be regarded as a positive sign, because it shows that expressions are being taken seriously.
5. The gradual curbing of human rights has already started. It is important to stress that anyone wanting to influence China in connection with the 2008 Olympics should start today.

Translated into English from the Norwegian minutes by Carl Morten Iversen