The word from Premier Wen Jiabao at the opening of this year’s National People’s Congress was that China should open up even further to the outside world. But when it comes to managing the news media, old habits die hard.
The NPC coincided with the BBC’s special “China week” – so, not only were e-mail and internet access sluggish, but television screens also routinely went blank when sensitive topics came up on the BBC. (Interestingly, the growing number of Chinese who have illegal satellite dishes could watch uninterrupted; only foreigners and others living in buildings with ‘official’ access – in other words, those who could most easily get the information elsewhere – were subjected to these irritating interruptions.)
At least the censors seem to be getting more sophisticated. In a BBC piece on Xinjiang, they allowed shots of Uighers worshipping in a mosque, and of Uighur students doing patriotic exercises – but abruptly cut to black when Rupert Wingfield-Hayes said that Uighurs don’t much like Han Chinese.
The stage management continued in Premier Wen’s end-of-NPC news conference on March 14. “Today, I am here at this press conference, ready to answer your questions,” he said. “I’ll speak from my heart. I’m neither nervous nor afraid.” Why should he be afraid, when he knew in advance what all the questions would be?
Foreign and, presumably, local correspondents were called in advance and asked if they’d like to ask a question and, if so, what. Those with acceptable questions were escorted to reserved seats at the front of the hall. Organizers made a big show of Premier Wen’s generosity in extending the news conference by 20 minutes, and then taking three more questions even after that. Amazing, then, that for one of the last questions, about China’s relations with India, Wen was able to quote exactly from an obscure, ancient Indian Upanishad text.
Even with all the advance scripting, the censors still weren’t satisfied. The official record of the news conference, published in China’s official media, left out a couple of key points. One was when Premier Wen said he thought history would “render a fair verdict” on outgoing Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-Hwa. The other was when, talking about China’s new anti-secession law, Wen referred to the US anti-secession law of 1861. The part cut from the official record was when Wen said, “And after that happened, the war between the North and the South broke out. We do not wish to see that kind of outcome. We do not wish to see that kind of outcome.”
New York Times correspondent Joe Kahn, who caught these omissions, wrote, “It is possible that it was decided that the American law’s failure to stop the Civil War undermined the rationale for passing their own law… Political analysts in Beijing said authorities might also have felt that it was inappropriate for the prime minister to be on record plaintively bemoaning the possibility of conflict with Taiwan when the official line is that China “will pay any price” to ensure the unity of the nation.” Hard to know for sure why the cuts were made, Kahn says, because the news office of China’s cabinet, which Premier Wen heads, didn’t respond to a written request for comment.