To host the Games, Beijing pledged press freedom. It's time to deliver.
China sees the 2008 Olympics as an opportunity to present a positive and smiling image to the outside world. (It actually has launched an international photo competition for children with smiling faces, but typically declines to indicate how these are to be used.)
This is a challenge for a regime using Western techniques to run an open-market economy, but maintaining political control with all the repressive apparatuses of a communist government.
At the recently concluded party congress in Beijing, Communist party chief and president of China Hu Jintao, whom some in the West had hoped would chart a more moderate political course for China, used the word "democracy" in his keynote speech more than 60 times. But, as the Economist magazine dryly remarked, "little has changed."
Democracy requires, among other pieces of infrastructure, a free press able to represent the governed, when necessary to check the governing. This is a concept alien to the Beijing regime, as it is to most other communist leadership.
With what must have been gritted teeth, the Beijing government promised foreign critics, who protested that it should not be allowed to host the Olympics while jailing and harassing journalists, that it would loosen the reins in the run-up to the Games and during the Games themselves – from mid-2007 to Oct. 17, 2008. On my desk as I write is a 263-page computer printout of China's Olympic "Service Guide for Foreign Media Coverage."
But though the guide promises free travel to places "open to foreigners designated by the Chinese government," and says foreign journalists will be free to report on Chinese politics, society, culture, and economy, media critics claim that the government has already gone back on its earlier words about openness, and that none of the claimed relaxations do anything to lift repressive conditions for Chinese journalists.
As an example of the kind of non-Olympic stories the government would like journalists to write, the official 2008 Olympics website offers a media trip to the Beijing Qinghe River Sewage Treatment Factory – hardly a story that Katie Couric and Wolf Blitzer are likely to compete over.
On websites outside China, press freedom organizations are calling on the International Olympic Committee and international sports organizations to speak up for human rights and press freedom.