The more China tries to control its image and contain adverse publicity, the more those measures grab headlines in the world media. Dissident writer Yang Tianshui was last month given a 12-year sentence because of articles he posted on websites. Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong has been held on the mainland for more than a year on spying charges. These cases are just two in what seems to be a recent harder line by Beijing on the mainland media. Add to this the controversy over Google's compliance with Chinese web search censorship rules, and recent fears that Hotmail and Yahoo may have provided Beijing with copies of clients' e-mails, to be used in legal cases against perceived dissidents, and concerns over media freedoms appear justified. But long-serving journalists based on the mainland say these high-profile arrests and clamps on internet privacy are blips on what is becoming an ever stronger flow of information within China's borders and out to a global audience. The issue came to a head at a meeting in London this week of senior writers and broadcasters based on the mainland, with the overriding view being that China's domestic media are becoming more daring in tackling controversial issues - encouraged by rising awareness of the active role the press plays in other countries. The optimism is also based partly on the view that authorities will need to become more media savvy as the 2008 Olympics brings the largest wave of foreign journalists seen in China. 'I've been living in China for 35 years and I see a sea change in the flow of information,' said Jaime FlorCruz, CNN's Beijing bureau chief. 'Regulations have been tightened in recent years, especially concerning the internet. But that does not change my sense that the Chinese media has shifted from lapdog to watchdog. More abuses and corruption are being exposed. 'It's just dawning on Beijing that thousands of journalists will descend upon China - and they won't just be watching the games. The authorities are panicking now. They're sending officials abroad for media training in the US, at Duke University, and have invited over Australian and Greek officials to learn from their experiences. These Olympics will change China.' Dr Shao Wenguang, managing director of Phoenix Chinese News and Entertainment, told the Frontline journalists' club gathering in London that the scene was changing quickly. 'People are now very aware of the rights that they don't have, but which are normal in other countries,' he said. 'This is because there are many sources of information now. In the past, people had to stay up late at night listening to a radio in secret if they wanted news. Now they can go online, watch satellite TV, or travel abroad.' The obstacles are great. More than most countries, China has harnessed technology for the purposes of censorship. Satellite broadcasts of unwanted news material are intercepted. 'CNN, like BBC, is required to beam our broadcasts through the government-controlled satellite Sinosat,' FlorCruz said. 'There's an eight-second delay before transmission, and an official is there round the clock to look out for controversial stories and black them out.' This process is still crude. BBC reporter Carrie Gracie, who frequently films in China, has first-hand knowledge of the lengths authorities will go to in their attempts to stem the flow of information. 'Once, we had a panel discussion where government officials gave Beijing's views on 'the three Ts' that the media don't talk about: Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan,' she said. 'Even that was blacked out, as a knee-jerk reaction to the use of forbidden words.' Similarly, FlorCruz said certain faces were banned form the media. 'You're not allowed to see the face of the Dalai Lama, or the Taiwanese leader, or a Falun Gong prayer,' he said. 'But the censors don't seem to understand much English, so they don't block everything.' And where the internet is concerned, determined bloggers and news consumers find creative ways to bypass the national firewall and evade censorship. 'Yes, your screen will probably freeze if you search for Falun Gong,' said Peter Hessler, Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, who has been covering China for more than a decade. 'But the Chinese are very resourceful and it's possible to get around the firewall.' Bloggers are also evading censorship through the sheer force of numbers. Local journalists often post controversial stories on blogs before any editor or official can intervene to censor them. Then blogger after blogger will reproduce the story on their own sites. But the trend towards a more probing style of journalism appears to be on the domestic front as well as with foreign agencies. 'The people doing the groundbreaking journalism in China are locals, not foreign journalists,' said FlorCruz. 'The domestic media is much more open than it was, so people are less frightened to talk. People can even be too naive in saying things that could still get them into trouble - which presents a dilemma for journalists over whether to self-censor.' But there is still a wariness among many mainland viewers and readers when it comes to dealing with foreign media. 'I was interviewing some villagers about a controversial dam, but when they realised I'd publish the story abroad, they clammed up in case they looked like they were shaming their country abroad,' said Hessler. 'Since the 19th century, China has struggled with the disrespect of the outside world. A girl asked me not to mention that her boyfriend had hepatitis B, for fear it would reinforce what she saw as the west's stereotype of China as 'the sick man of Asia' - a stereotype that most Americans haven't even heard of.' Certainly, some key areas remain taboo. As well as 'the three Ts', the red lines are: the Falun Gong religious movement; separatism among ethnic Uygurs in the Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang; and some aspects of Beijing's relations with Tokyo. The ongoing censorship of history was recently highlighted by the discrepancy between the international coverage of the 40th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, and the utter silence with which official China greeted the date. 'Any talk about the leadership and their families remains highly sensitive,' Dr Shao said. In addition, the legal framework exists for crackdowns on other types of coverage. Even fashion and entertainment editors may be called in for questioning by police if they show models deemed to be wearing too little, or highlight nightlife that the authorities think is too racy. Yet there is now more coverage of problematic social and environmental issues in the domestic press. Several newspapers ran stories about severe water pollution in the Songhua River last year - and quoted an environmental official who blamed the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation. Even the official Xinhua news agency has given more publicity to environmental problems. 'Much depends on the timing,' FlorCruz said. 'The government is beginning to address the poverty gap and environmental degradation as part of its populist agenda, so it is now acceptable to run stories about these issues.' In permitting this expansion of possible topics, the government is trying to harness the power of the press for its own interests. A critical story is more likely to be tolerated by Beijing if it focuses on policy errors or accidents at a local level. This reflects tensions between the central government and the local authorities of provinces and cities. 'The provinces have so much autonomy, especially on economic issues, that the government is worried about losing control,' said Dr Shao. 'Beijing is realising that the press can play a valuable role in informing the central government what's actually going on elsewhere in the country.' FlorCruz said this meant journalists still had to deal with obstacles at the local level. 'Beijing may want certain things publicised now, but local mayors don't want coverage of accidents that might cause them to lose their jobs,' he said. So the freedom to report remains skewed by the central government's interests - but the development of a critical media culture is likely to create pressure for more liberalisation. FlorCruz and Dr Shao are optimistic the government will soon relax its policy on the media, despite the wave of new regulations and arrests in 2005. 'Maybe the new leadership is not so confident only two years in, but I think next year's party congress will lead to more loosening up,' said FlorCruz. As the government prepares for the 2008 Olympics, it also is bracing for an unprecedented level of international media scrutiny. 'BBC Sport wants to send 400 staff, and it would send more if it thought it could get the visas,' said Gracie. Beijing may therefore give greater attention to international press freedom norms. The government may also develop its skills in manipulating the media in the more subtle and nuanced ways often seen in the west, replacing censors with spin doctors.