Page last updated at 23:36 GMT, Thursday, 17 September 2009 00:36 UK

China not always open to reporters

Chinese government officials continue to duck awkward questions from foreign reporters - despite a pledge to be more open, says the BBC's Michael Bristow in Beijing.

Journalists interview Chinese soldiers at a military camp - 10 September 2009
Chinese officials are not always as open to interviews as these soldiers

Overseas journalists were told that their queries would be answered within 24 hours as part of a new "zero refusal" policy.

But when the BBC fired off 10 questions to various departments, we were met with the traditional silence from Chinese officialdom.

Several departments failed to answer our questions, some sent us elsewhere and others gave excuses.

'No electricity'

Earlier this month Guo Weimin, an official at the government's State Council Information Office, said questions would be answered within a day.

"It doesn't mean all applications will be accepted, but we have to tell the media how we handled it so they can understand," he told the China Daily newspaper.

The BBC decided to see if government departments were heeding Mr Guo's words by checking how they responded to faxed questions.

The results would surely not please the information office official.

We asked the ministry of education why some school pupils still have to pay fees when basic education in China is supposed to be free.

It's not a sign of any sort of fundemental shift in media openness
David Bandurski, China Media Project

Three days after sending a fax, a spokesperson called back to say no one was available to answer questions because the department was busy - classes were about to resume after the summer holidays.

There was also no luck with the local government in Baoji, a city in Shaanxi Province where more than 600 school children recently suffered lead poisoning caused by pollution from a nearby smelting plant.

We wanted to interview a senior official, but we could not even fax our request to the local government because "the building was out of electricity, so the fax machine didn't work". Calls to a Baoji official's mobile phone went unanswered.

Olympic legacy

The ministry of health was equally shy when asked whether most donated organs in China really do come from executed prisoners, as one media report claimed.

No answer came. Many calls to the ministry went unanswered, although one worker who picked up the telephone said no one could deal with the question because "our boss is away".

China says increased openness towards the foreign media is one of the biggest legacies of the Beijing Olympic Games last year.

But some departments simply sidestep inconvenient queries.

The ministry of defence was silent on the question of how many missiles are pointed at Taiwan, a self-governing island Beijing claims as its own.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet
China does not like journalists visiting Tibet following unrest last year

So was the ministry of commerce when we asked how much aid China gave to North Korea - its communist ally - last year.

And no one got back to me when I asked the local government in Lhasa if I could visit Tibet to have a look around.

China's central government has banned foreign journalists from going on independent trips to Tibet, the scene of unrest last year.

One Tibetan official previously said that this was to ensure our "safety" and because the weather could be extreme on the high-altitude plateau.

More sophisticated

In China it is sometimes even difficult to find out which department is dealing with which issue.

We wanted to know why a legal advice centre in Beijing, called the Open Constitution Initiative, had been closed down and its founder taken into custody.

Beijing's local government media office called back promptly, but passed us on to officials at the city's foreign affairs department, who referred us to several other departments. No one seemed to know the answer.

David Bandurski, a researcher at Hong Kong's China Media Project, said the "no refusal" policy did not mean that China was now more open towards foreign journalists.

"It's not a sign of any sort of fundamental shift in media openness, but it does show that the government's media policy has changed," he said.

Mr Bandurski said the change was that China has now become more sophisticated in how it handles the media.

But in the end the BBC did not get an answer to any of the questions.

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