Freedom of Information
Back in February when we were preparing to depart Bangkok for China, I looked over my stuff. I was in the middle of writing an article abuot the Karmapa's flight from Tibet and had clipped a couple of magazine articles on the topic. I buried these deep inside my pack, thinking they might be confiscated upon arrival in China.
On the Thai Airways flight to Kunming we were handed complimentary copies of the Bangkok Post and Asiaweek magazine—both contained articles on sensitive issues in China. The cover of Asiwaweek was plastered with Jiang Zemin's face and the accompanying article covered the impending power struggle amongst China's upper ranks.
Curious to see what would happen, I had these periodicals in my hand carry as we filed off the plane to customs and immigration. Nothing happened. No one checked inside our bags or asked a single question.
Once in China I realized that international news magazines and newspapers are available. But only in big cities and of course these are in English which most people don't read. The Chinese language press (as well as press publications in English and various other languages such as Tibetan) is tightly controlled by the government. The same goes for Chinese television stations. But in our hotel room in Kunming we received CNN. And at night, as with anywhere, we could tune into VOA or the BBC on our short wave radio.
News and views from outside do get in and are passed around via word of mouth. Despite tight control of what was said in the press about the Karmapa—foreign travellers we met saw their TV go blank during a report in Hong Kong—Tibetans we met seemed to know the real story.
What about the Internet? A cybercafe we visited in Dali had a list of regulations directed at foreign users. Do not use email to criticize the Chinese Government. Do not use email to discuss Taiwan. And so forth. Violation would result in one having to "deal with the authorities". But this was clearly just lip service. And we have yet to encounter a second such notice.
In addition to independent cybercafes, Internet access is offered by the government in many cities (large and small) throughout China at generally affordable rates. This would indicate that the authoritiest have embraced the new medium.
Or have they? Government agencies acting independently of each other have been sending out conflicting messages. In February, Shanghai officials shut down 127 cybercafes (allegedly for tax evasion and spreading pornography).
The bigger issue seems to be the freedom for entrepreuners to efficiently grow their dot-com start-ups and to attract foreign investment. Here, the authorities are not quite clear on the concept. Recent constraints on the use of encryption technology—necessary for secure transactions—is a case in point.
There is an inherent conflict between the totalitarian nature of the Chinese Government and the freedoms which have allowed the Internet to boom elsewhere.
In January, China's State Bureau of Secrecy published a new set of rules aimed at domestic websites. In typical fashion, the rules are vague, banning the dissemination of "state secrets". China's definition of a state secret is so general as to include anything not cleared by the governmnet censors. A similar law for print publications has been the justification for imprisoning journalists who have written stories displeasing to the Communist Party.