Halfway right

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 October, 2008, 12:00am

Ever since China was awarded the 2008 Beijing Olympics seven years ago, hopes had been high that the country's human rights performance would markedly improve, especially in the months leading up to the event.

Alas, those hopes were dashed as the world continued to see political activists harassed, arrested, tried and imprisoned. Even three areas in parks in Beijing set aside for protests areas were never used, as all applications to demonstrate were rejected.

The general feeling now is that the Olympics, while highly successful in terms of enhancing China's international image, will not leave any permanent impact in terms of making the country more liberal and less authoritarian.

However, on Friday night - technically the last day of the Olympic period - Beijing made an announcement that provided some ground for optimism that the Olympics would, after all, leave a positive legacy. Fifteen minutes before more liberalised rules governing foreign journalists brought in during the Olympic period were about to expire, the Chinese foreign ministry held a press conference where it was announced that the rules would be made permanent.

The new rules first came into operation on January 1, 2007 and were set to expire on October 17, 2008. They were introduced because Beijing had promised the International Olympic Committee that foreign journalists would have a free hand in reporting on the country.

Because of the internet, it is now often possible for foreign news stories to be accessible in China so that its people are better informed as to what is going on in their country and are not solely reliant on the censored Chinese media for news.

Those rules do not apply to the Chinese journalists and media, who will continue to be subject to orders from the Communist Party's Propaganda Department and told what to report and what to shun. But making it a little easier for foreign correspondents to do their work is a definite step forward for China.

Moreover, China does not allow foreign news organisations to hire Chinese nationals to act as correspondents, though it is possible to employ locals as researchers and news assistants. But those researchers and news assistants often run risks if they help the correspondent by, say, introducing news sources or conducting interviews.

Under the relaxed rules, foreign correspondents will be able to travel to large parts of the country and to interview anyone who agrees to be interviewed without needing to get approval from government authorities or to be accompanied by Chinese officials.

In the past, permission had to be obtained from the authorities before a correspondent could conduct any interviews. Even if a person agreed to be interviewed, the government still had to approve before the interview could proceed.

Some sensitive areas, particularly Tibet, are still not open to free travel and reporting by foreign correspondents. The way the new regulations worked has been uneven. While many reporters welcomed their new freedom, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China reported that there were more than 330 cases of interference.

As time goes on, local authorities should become increasingly familiar with the new regulations and, hopefully, there will be fewer cases of obstruction. However, while the new regulations say correspondents can talk to whoever they want to, the pressure is now on their Chinese sources.

Many Chinese, after talking to foreign reporters, have been questioned by local authorities. There has also been pressure on people not to talk to foreign reporters at all. This makes the work of foreign reporters extremely difficult if not impossible, as journalists will think twice before they decide to risk the safety of their sources.

This is a catch-22 situation for foreign correspondents. Until China makes it clear that Chinese citizens are free to talk to foreign reporters, the usefulness of these regulations will remain limited.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator