Permission to speak

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 May, 2010, 12:00am

In the hurly-burly of daily reporting and commenting, it is often difficult to put events in historical perspective. This is certainly true of writing about China, where so much has changed in the past 30 years. So the international media conference held by the East West Centre at the University of Hong Kong last month was hugely useful in reminding myself and others of what China was like three decades ago when it first opened up.

The former CNN reporter, Mike Chinoy, showed a 30-minute documentary, Assignment: China, in which he interviewed a number of the earliest Beijing-based American correspondents who had arrived in 1979 in the wake of the official normalisation of China-US relations.

These included Jim Laurie of ABC, Jay Mathews of The Washington Post, Linda Mathews of the Los Angeles Times and the reporter for The Wall Street Journal, namely me.

It certainly brought back memories. The first Chinese official I met in 1979, Yao Wei, told me that nobody in China needed permission to speak to a foreign journalist. The problem was that he didn't tell anyone else. Often, when I tried to interview someone, he would decline, saying that he didn't have permission to speak to me.

I once tried to interview the manager of the International Club, which was renting out office space to foreign companies - a perfect story for The Wall Street Journal. I assured him that he did not need permission to talk to me but he was not convinced. Finally, I had to call the Foreign Ministry and told the person who answered the phone to please tell the manager that he did not need permission. Then, satisfied that he had permission, the manager proceeded to answer my questions.

Almost 30 years later, Beijing unveiled new regulations for foreign correspondents for the 2008 Olympic Games. One provision said: 'To interview organisations or individuals in China, foreign journalists need only to obtain their prior consent.' And so, what Yao Wei said in 1979 finally came true in 2008.

The conference also brought back recollections of the restrictions under which the foreign press worked in those days, restrictions that current mainland-based correspondents no longer have to contend with. For one thing, correspondents were not allowed to travel outside the capital without permission. So reporting was confined to Beijing, and each trip to Shanghai or any other city had to be approved ahead of time, a process that was frustrating and time-consuming.

Moreover, correspondents were only allowed to read two newspapers, the People's Daily and the Guangming Daily. All the others were 'internal', including Reference News, which contained only articles culled from the foreign press. That is to say, we were not allowed to read what we ourselves had written.

In those days, there were no telephone directories, and foreign correspondents were given only one number for the whole country: that of the Information Department of the Foreign Ministry. All requests had to be channelled through that department, and one can imagine the resulting bottlenecks.

There were no regularly scheduled press conferences and no designated spokesmen for government departments, which made it difficult to ask for official comments. This situation was not deliberately created to make life difficult for correspondents. China was simply not used to Western-style media, and needed time to prepare the institutions required. But lack of access to government officials meant that many reporters turned naturally to sources that were happy to meet and talk: political dissidents.

By the time I left Beijing, things were getting much better. We had moved out of hotel rooms and into apartments, and life became a little more normal. In 1983, the Foreign Ministry began weekly press conferences, which are now held twice weekly. Other ministries designated English-speaking official spokesmen and even phone numbers were given out.

China was becoming a more normal country - but that also made it less exotic.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator