Big brother loses sight of 'little' protesters

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 May, 1999, 12:00am

The nightly reports live from Belgrade on CNN are provoking mirthless laughs among correspondents resident in Beijing. After each despatch from the bombed Serb capital, the announcer in Atlanta solemnly warns listeners that journalists are closely supervised and cannot travel outside the capital without permission.

China is not at war, yet resident correspondents are under identical restrictions. Although there are rarely such public warnings attached to reports coming out of China, journalists cannot go anywhere or film anywhere without permission and unless they are accompanied by officials.

In the run-up to a number of sensitive anniversaries, that of the 1919 May 4 movement and of the 1989 June 4 massacre, the Chinese public security officials and the Ministry of State Security are being especially vigilant.

The police charged with approving the yearly residence visas of correspondents are always on patrol in Beijing if a big event such as a dissident trial takes place. There you are, asking what is going on when suddenly in front of you appears the policeman who approved your residence permit and can disapprove it next time.

Even the surprise demonstration on Sunday by the followers of the Fa Lun Gong religious sect found the same men out and about. However, the curious thing was the protesters were grimly determined not to talk to the increasingly frustrated foreign press, perhaps because their leaders wanted to avoid the strategy of the 1989 protesters who freely spoke to the foreign media and were later accused of treasonable behaviour for doing so.

This was about the only time in the past 50 years when people lost their fear sufficiently for such a thing to occur. Since then the Chinese are constantly reminded of the danger of speaking to foreigners. In 1989, one man was given 10 years for 'spreading rumours' by telling CNN that many people had died in Beijing.

Similarly this January Hunanese worker Zhang Shanguang was given 10 years 'for illegally providing intelligence to hostile foreign organisations', meaning he had told Radio Free Asia about a tax protest by peasants outside Changsha.

Contacting resident foreign journalists is still hazardous and is now, with the spread of international communications, superfluous. Many who write letters, make phone calls or come to the offices of foreign reporters are quickly picked up.

In the past few weeks, the authorities have been finding many ways to issue polite but intimidating warnings to journalists to keep away from dissidents in the run-up to June 4.

A number have been called for a 'talk', others have been followed or detained while travelling in China.

Around the country, hotels are acting on instructions from the state security apparatus the moment a journalist checks in. The visa in journalists' passports is marked with a 'J' to make them easily identifiable.

The system is similar to the way a dissident is listed as one of the 'zongdian renkou' or 'key population', meaning even if they are not on parole, they are under constant surveillance.

The most astonishing thing about Sunday's protest is that this elaborate system of controls failed for the first time. The secretive Fa Lun Gong organised its protest just like the Communist Party and so bypassed all the expected channels like foreign media.

The secret police were perhaps so busy tracking correspondents, dissidents, students and the other usual suspects that they were caught unawares. Somehow 15,000 people could suddenly materialise and surround Zhongnanhai, the centre of communist power, without anyone having an inkling of what was going on.