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Chinese Journalists Facing Government Crackdown - 2001-08-21


A new report says China's tight control of the domestic media is getting harsher, with crusading journalists being fired or arrested. The crackdown comes as some Chinese reporters are angering the government with stories about official corruption or for failing to support the Communist Party.

Jiang Weiping wrote the kind of corruption stories most reporters savor, exposing one high official for gambling away millions of dollars worth of government money, and another who used public funds to buy apartments for each of his 29 mistresses. Such enterprise would have won him professional awards and fame in many countries; in China, it got him arrested for revealing so-called state secrets.

A new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists says Mr. Jiang is one of a growing number of Chinese reporters and editors subjected to intimidation, firing, or worse as they expose government misdeeds.

Kavita Menon, who speaks for the U.S. based media watchdog, says the clampdown is the most comprehensive in years. "There has been a wave of arrests of intellectuals, including journalists," Ms. Menon says. "Independent-minded editors have been demoted or fired, and hundreds of journalists have been brought to Beijing for political indoctrination sessions. And even the foreign correspondents say they are under stepped-up surveillance efforts."

Analysts say China's ruling Communist Party is sensitive to criticism now because top Chinese leaders will retire in the next year, sparking some political uncertainty. Chronic Chinese worries about instability are compounded by the economic strains China will endure as it opens its markets as a member of the World Trade Organization.

Party leaders apparently fear that any hint of incompetence or squabbling within the one-party system at this time would threaten their power.

So earlier this month, the government said it would tolerate little or no criticism, issuing a list of stories that may prompt party officials to close a news outlet. These include reports that reveal state secrets, question the role of the Communist Party, affect social stability, or advocate violence.

Experts say the Communist Party's effort to more tightly control information follows cutbacks in government financial support for media. The Committee to Protect Journalists says that forces these government-controlled news outlets to compete for readers and revenue by printing more controversial stories.

Veteran journalist Mark O'Neill of the South China Morning Post says his skillful Chinese colleagues sometimes break big stories in spite of the odds. He says a recent business story accused a big company of lying about sales and exports to get a listing on the stock exchange. The alleged fraud raises questions about the government's competence as well as the company's honesty. "How could they [the journalists] find out about the fraud, when the company, the accountants, the regulators, the stock market, who all have to read the figures, how come they didn't spot it," Mr. O'Neill asks.

Analysts say China's state-controlled media also overcame threats of violence and political pressure to report a recent mine accident that probably cost hundreds of lives. The government at first dismissed reports of the accident near the town of Nandan and the mine owner said the incident "never happened."

The government may have allowed the unusual news coverage because it helped a government safety campaign aimed at cutting the thousands of deaths each year in China's dangerous mines.

Mark O'Neill says coverage of the fraud and the mine disaster are exceptions to the tight control of Chinese media and the general trend of covering up bad news for fear of causing social unrest.

Many journalists say Chinese society pays a high price for shackling its best reporters, who otherwise would serve as society's safety valve, bringing problems to light so they can be solved.

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