Witness protection

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2009, 12:00am

Few people know that anti-corruption authorities in Namibia said last week they wished to speak to President Hu Jintao's son, 38-year-old Hu Haifeng. And, on the mainland, the government is doing its best to see that nobody learns about it. Paulus Noah, director of the Anti-Corruption Commission in Namibia, has been quoted as saying that the younger Mr Hu is not a suspect in the case and that the commission wants to interview him as a witness. That is because, until last year, Mr Hu was president of Nuctech, a Beijing-based maker of advanced airport security scanners. Now, he is the Communist Party secretary of Tsinghua Holdings, which controls Nuctech and some 20 other companies.

Nuctech is affiliated with Tsinghua University from which both the Chinese president and his son graduated. It has become one of the world's top providers of security scanning equipment.

In Namibia, three people - two Namibians and a Chinese - have been charged with corruption. The Chinese man is Nuctech's Africa representative, Yang Fan. Nuctech has a US$55.3 million contract to supply security scanning equipment, paid for from a Chinese government soft loan.

Even though Namibia has made it clear that Hu Haifeng is not a suspect, Beijing is doing everything it can to keep the story from the Chinese public.

According to the US-based China Digital Times, which monitors China via the internet, the Propaganda Department issued instructions to all search engines in the country asking them to 'please show no search results' for the following keywords: 'Hu Haifeng, Namibia, Namibia bribery investigation, Nuctech bribery investigation, southern Africa bribery inspection'.

Just as protesters in the country have learned to use modern technology to get their message out, so Beijing has honed its skills to selectively block the internet and trace mobile phone calls. The authorities are said to send online media an updated list of banned search keywords almost every day.

Even foreign companies operating on the mainland, such as Google's local site, are obliged to block news when ordered to do so by Beijing. The country is believed to have the world's most extensive system of Web monitoring and censorship.

The Chinese authorities have reportedly begun to remove satellite dishes in Tibetan-populated areas in an attempt to block access to foreign broadcasts, such as those by Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.

The mainland censors potentially embarrassing information, such as the case involving the president's son, from the people. At the same time, it suppresses information about its own repressive actions, such as the closure last week of the Gongmeng Legal Research Centre, which defended victims in human rights cases. Censors banned any coverage of this action by the government.

Thus, in the information age, when knowledge more than anything else is important for people on the mainland and around the world, Beijing is practising a policy of obscurantism, keeping its people ignorant for the government's own purposes.

This is a dangerous policy, since the Chinese people will sooner or later realise that the government is systematically withholding information from them. Already, it has developed into a cat-and-mouse game, with people seeking forbidden information. Moreover, people will not trust whatever information the government does provide.

This may well result in growing alienation between the government and the people, and reduce government legitimacy.

It will be far better if Beijing is open with its people, treating them as adults who can judge for themselves the rights and wrongs of any issue.

Chinese officials need to remember the Watergate scandal during the Richard Nixon administration. Ultimately, exposure of the cover-up was far more damaging than negative publicity about the original wrongdoing and led to the only time in history when a US president was forced to resign.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator