Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

China Uses Ways Subtle - and Not - to Quiet Its Press

Wang Dan is free. But at least 100 other Tiananmen protesters languish in gulags.

Ever since she pleaded with Beijing not to use troops to clear pro-democracy protesters from Tiananmen Square in 1989, prominent Chinese reporter Dai Qing has ceased to exist.

While Ms. Dai bikes around Beijing and has a daughter in college, for China's 1.2 billion citizens she has become a nonperson - officially at least.

About these ads

Despite the high-profile release of Tiananmen activist and writer Wang Dan this week into exile in the United States, Beijing continues to persecute Dai and many other Chinese who have used their pens to criticize the government.

While Dai was held for only one year in China's top political prison after the 1989 crackdown, other writers still languish in jail, hidden away in secretive gulags that stretch across China.

Dai, once one of China's best-known and socially connected journalists, signed her own professional death warrant when she penned an appeal for mediation on the eve of the military's attack on Tiananmen.

Being detained in solitary confinement until 1990 was only the beginning of her punishment, Dai says. Since then, she has been banned from writing for the Chinese media, and the state-run publishing industry is barred from printing her work or even her name. "The state has really done a good job of erasing my identity from the public memory," says Dai.

Constant surveillance by the police and the secretive State Security Bureau has ensured that most of Dai's friends from the pre-crackdown era "do not dare call or visit," she says.

Despite her isolation, Dai is not alone. International human rights groups say that more than 100 Tiananmen-era dissidents are still imprisoned, along with thousands of other political or religious activists.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists this week called on Beijing to match Mr. Wang's release with a general amnesty for other Chinese who are behind bars for violating vague laws on information or expression.

About these ads

Wang was jailed for four years for leading the Tiananmen protests, but in 1996 received an additional 11-year sentence on charges that included writing political commentaries for the Hong Kong press. Ironically, one of Wang's "crimes against the state" was writing that China's constitutional guarantee of free speech was a hollow promise.

Since the 1949 communist revolution, "China's record on freedom of expression has been terrible," says Lin Neumann, Asia program director at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Despite Wang's release, Mr. Neumann says, the group "remains alarmed by the continued imprisonment of at least 10 journalists in China and the harassment and press restrictions that are a fact of life for reporters and editors.

"China's many years of repression have caused most journalists to become fearful and engage in self-censorship," he says.

Rather than publish clear guidelines on what reporters can and cannot write about, "China uses invisible rules for the press that are in a constant state of flux," says Orville Schell, dean of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

Instead of clear press standards, the Communist Party often singles out political pamphleteers and others who test the limits of free speech. Those who step over the unwritten boundary of political taboos become human scarecrows whose example sends a message to the masses, say journalists in Beijing. "There is a saying in Chinese that the ruler 'must kill the chicken to scare the monkeys,' " Dai says.

"You don't have to arrest too many journalists before the rest of the press gets the message," Neumann adds.

Stumbling block with US

China's imprisonment of free-speech advocates has been a major stumbling block to improved relations with the US ever since the Tiananmen crackdown. This week, President Clinton welcomed the release of Wang, who remains a potent symbol of the 1989 peaceful protest, as a sign of liberalization ahead of a China-US summit here scheduled for late June.

Yet Wang was only the most visible tip of a largely submerged iceberg of repression dating from Tiananmen, say rights groups.

Chen Yanbin was jailed in 1990 for printing and handing out a few hundred copies of a broadsheet that mourned the student martyrs of the Army's assault on Tiananmen. Moments after distributing the elegy at Beijing University, Mr. Chen was arrested and later convicted of "inciting counterrevolution."

"Chen Yanbin is still in the middle of serving a 15-year sentence," Neumann says. "It's incredible that Chen and others like him are still imprisoned as the first stirrings of an information revolution are beginning to sweep across China."

Some of Beijing's reform-minded leaders realize that competing in the global economy will depend on China's freeing the channels of information and communication, he adds.

The Communist Party, which hopes to reform China's command economy while maintaining its Stalinist ruling system, is facing an impossible dilemma in its schizophrenic handling of information, say some Chinese intellectuals. Beijing aims to liberalize access to economic data, but not to alternative political ideas.

'A culture of secrecy, fear'

That split policy is reflected in China's opening its doors to the Internet while using its police and prisons to silence outspoken writers and dissidents. "In China, the Internet is forcing an authoritarian system of control to confront a new, maverick system of information," Mr. Schell says.

"While China wants to be part of the international community, its continued jailing of journalists and dissidents reflects a culture of state secrecy and fear of information," says Neumann.

Protests against China's imprisonment of journalists and other free thinkers "are now carried across the world at lightning speed by the Internet," Neumann says.

"China must decide whether it wants to join the community of nations by ending violations of global human rights standards and opening the country to the new dynamics of information....

"The only alternative is to totally control access to the outside by becoming as closed as North Korea."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.