The Washington Post is reporting that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is choking off internal debate about political reform and constitutional change. The Post says that Chinese academics, economists, and legal scholars have been enjoying considerable freedom in recent months to discuss such formerly taboo topics. But Party leaders are worried that the trend has gone too far and have begun a security crackdown.
That’s bad news for proponents of strategic engagement and commercial diplomacy with China. Promoters of these policies insist that greater openness and more political freedom for Chinese citizens will inevitably flow from more contact with the West. The Post article does depict the recent crackdown in terms of Party reformers versus the old guard within the CCP. The confrontation has extended into China’s news media, with government recently issuing new bans on media coverage of a variety of topics.
But surveys of China’s media and especially the government’s handling of the SARS outbreak demonstrate little real change in China’s continuing restrictions on the freedom of expression and the media. Reporters Without Borders has learned that the Chinese government employs nearly 30,000 people just to monitor and censor the Internet in China. Beijing uses filters to block transmission of any news or messages that contain “banned words.” These include any criticism of the Chinese government or any messages deemed by the watchers to be “subversive” or “likely to quote jeopardize state security.”
A recent congressional study determined that free speech in China is reserved primarily for those who enjoy enough political status to avoid prosecution. The study refers to this group as the “free speech elite.” It seems limited to senior government and Party officials and some approved academics. These elites may write about sensitive topics, but only within guidelines established by the Party leadership.
The penalties for ignoring these rules can be severe. Several Internet participants have recently been sentenced to long prison terms for posting articles critical of the government. One claimed that he had been beaten and tortured with electric shocks in a government effort to obtain a confession. Another Internet operator got a five-year sentence for posting an essay calling for the prosecution of those responsible for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. He didn’t write the essay, but simply permitted others to post the article on his website.
The congressional study alleged that Beijing’s suppression of any news about SARS permitted the spread of the epidemic. It was only when SARS began killing people in Hong Kong that the world and PRC citizens became aware of the disease. Reporters Without Borders noted, however, that Beijing’s censorship of the Internet would not be possible without the support of Western companies like Microsoft. They charge that these companies have cooperated with China’s censorship policies and permitted Beijing’s cyberpolice to monitor their networks.