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Last Updated: Monday, 12 September 2005, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
Not to be read in China
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor, Beijing

Sadly, this column will not be read in China.

McDonalds in China
Economic freedom, but no freedom of information in China
The Chinese government thinks that ordinary Chinese people should not be exposed to the BBC News Website, or to the websites of several other foreign media.

Nor can BBC World be seen in China, except in the more expensive Western-style hotels and under certain very specific circumstances.

And this must surely be almost the last place on earth where the full, old-fashioned paraphernalia of jamming is used against foreign radio broadcasts.

In the days when the old Soviet Union used habitually to block the flow of information from the outside, we regarded it as the result of Moscow's hostility to free thinking: a sign of the regime's bitter resistance to change of any kind.

But no one could accuse the Chinese government of resisting change.

On the contrary, China has embarked on the most remarkable, even courageous, voyage into the economic unknown.

Its anxieties about what the outside world might say seem to originate in something else: an odd lack of self-confidence.

Access to the internet is heavily restricted.

Last week a leading human rights agency accused Yahoo of helping the Chinese government identify an investigative journalist through his emails. The journalist, who had dug up some disturbing information about the ways of officialdom in China, has been jailed.


All this matters, because China matters.

As a senior British official said privately the other day: "It's a real problem. If we're going to be their close trading partners, we really need to be certain that we can trust them in other areas as well. And this kind of thing makes it harder to be confident."

When Tony Blair was in Beijing last week, he gave voice to these views.

Since the British are nothing like as outspoken as the Americans on human rights here, it was significant.

He wasn't presuming to lecture the Chinese leadership, or tell them how to run their country. He simply explained that it was difficult to have confidence in China as a partner if it behaved like this.

Anyone who comes here today can see that there is no serious discontent, no great welling up of anger against the system

In the past, I would have had a ready explanation for China's behaviour.

Having witnessed the massacre in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, and seen for myself how ferociously the crowds attacked the symbols of the Communist Party and the security police, I would have said that the Chinese authorities were frightened of their own people.

But I don't believe it's true now. Anyone who comes here today can see that there is no serious discontent, no great welling up of anger against the system.

People have willingly accepted the huge changes in the way China runs its economy, and are mostly concerned with making a living.

And they can see the very real benefits of the changes which have taken place.

Radical sentiments

China and the Soviet Union took different paths away from Marxism-Leninism. Looking back, it's clear that the Chinese approach was rather more effective than the Soviet one.

In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev allowed people to speak freely before the benefits of opening up the economy had a chance to show themselves - so everyone complained endlessly about the economic shortages, and the government was discredited and mistrusted.

The Chinese government, under Deng Xiaoping, showed people it wouldn't accept any kind of political discontent. That was what Tiananmen Square was all about.

But at the same time, it made them better off than they had ever dreamed of being, and communism effectively disappeared in China without the upheavals Russia experienced.

There are of course all sorts of rumblings, particularly in the Chinese countryside, sudden outbreaks of violence and anger.

But they aren't directed against the political system as such, they are usually a reaction to things that people consider to be unreasonable and unjust.
Nowadays, people here see themselves as taxpayers, and they think that if they're paying for the government, the government ought to behave as they want it to behave.
Leading city councillor in Beijing

Recently, the BBC correspondent in Beijing, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, broadcast a remarkable television report about a local electricity authority in rural China which wanted to take over the land of some farmers, and hired a gang of thugs to do it.

Yet even in the depths of the countryside, things have changed now. Attitudes to injustice, for one thing, and the availability of technology for another.

The farmers decided to resist, and they used video cameras to record the violent tactics of the thugs.

Rupert's BBC colleagues were arrested for going to the village, and were roughly treated before being released, but the report, complete with the farmers' extraordinary video footage, was seen around the world - though not in China itself, of course.

"Nowadays," says a leading city councillor in Beijing, who is famous for taking up cases where individuals have been wrongly treated, "people here see themselves as taxpayers.

"And they think that if they're paying for the government, the government ought to behave as they want it to behave."

Radical sentiments, but inevitable ones in a country where people are unmistakably on the road to real affluence.

Further changes will come in China, but it is reasonable to assume that it will be the present political system which introduces them.

The government seems entirely stable, entirely in charge.

Yet if so, do the authorities here really need to be quite so nervous about letting people have information from the outside world?

Your comments

Having been in Taiwan, I have seen what a Chinese nation can achieve, and only half of it! John Simpson may be correct - the People's Republic probably afford to loosen up. The question remains - can they find a balance between material and political aspirations while retaining stability?
R.G. Waterson, Brisbane, Australia

Dear John, You are one of my most admired news reporters and I love listening to your reports but I think this article seems to drift a little bit. I suppose you mean the government and its tight control over the media. Well, which country in this world today does not control the media in one way or another? Who owns the press and decides what makes news in the free or not so free world? I think it's not a confidence issue but simply one of control. Your second half talks about ordinary citizens taking action against an authority. This is a very Chinese thing - it's history is full of peasant chivalry, of ordinary people standing up to injustice. China's people are very resilient in the face of suffering and misfortune and will fight to right a wrong at a personal level. These fights go on in all parts of the developing world. If only your camera can go to all these places and help those in trouble! Nevertheless, I think this is unrelated to the "lack of confidence" line of argument. Kind regards.
H.Tan, London, UK

As usual, John Simpson paints a very clear picture of the issue at hand. I like the way he can take complex issues and reduce them to understandable phrases.
G.Keyes, Limerick, Ireland

Just want to point out one fact. I was in Beijing this July. I was able to access BBC news website from my parent's home via a regular ADSL online service.
Chong Zhang, Illinois, USA

Dear Sir, I strongly subscribe to your positive and optimistic approach to characterizing China's censorship, governance, and approach to freedom of speech and human rights. I do have a small comment to your statement that "...Anyone who comes here today can see that there is no serious discontent, no great welling up of anger against the system." This is probably true to the extent that "anyone who comes here" (most tourists) goes to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong -- places of severe surveilance and economic prosperity. In the countryside, however, the story is quite different. In terms of violent protest, we have seen a high increase in the proliferation of such demonstration, and more and more of these carried traces of blood. They occur mostly in smaller cities (though not always) and rural provinces, where the Western media is not pre-occupied with bra wars and currency exchange regimes. These protests are mostly in opposition to the rural-urban divide and high degree of corruption in smaller cities, which account for the majority of the Chinese population. The Chinese revolution of 1949 had its roots in the rural and provincial areas. It is there you probably need to go, if you really want to gauge Chinese discontent. Thanks for giving me the chance to comment on your otherwise very intriguing article.
Soeren Petersen, Washington D.C, USA

Yes, I defintely agree with what is written here. I wish that economic success that has made China an economic giant will be coupled with freedom of expression and of religion. Religions in China are still very much restricted in what they can do. I wish that the Vatican and China normalise their relationships with each other and hope for a warmer relationship. A democratic China will benefit the whole world not just the Asia-pacific region.
Neil, Malta

The Chinese government has left the idea of communism and socialism way behind and they have opened up their economy. They are ahead in the race in manufacturing and services sector in Asia. Now they are world's economic superpower. Now it is being seen by the young generation's inclination towards the English language. But the government has to do more to attain democracy and work more to eradicate human rights violations. And I hope the Chinese government will progress in the correct direction to do so.
A. Nair, Bangalore, India


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