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Saturday, 26 February, 2000, 09:37 GMT
Press freedoms in the spotlight
Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Reporters in Beijing are more free than before
By Julian O'Halloran in Beijing

This was going to be a pleasant trip. A film about journalism in China in which we could be like flies on the wall, recording what happened as three young reporters from the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper went around the country getting their stories.

My hopes were dashed as I stepped outside our hotel near Tiananmen Square on the first morning. The crew bus provided by the Foreign Ministry looked big enough for a couple of football teams. From the outset we would be about as inconspicuous as an elephant in a bus queue.

We started as a filming team of five, including translator. By mid-morning we were up to seven, with the arrival of our two Chinese "fixers" whose role it was to get us around China at high speed and to make everything happen on the way.

Party grows

Then came the foreign ministry representative. And the driver. He was no ordinary driver. He was bright, urbane and spoke remarkably good English. That made nine in all and the size of the bus started to seem less absurd.

Now we were 10. We only needed one more to make up a football team

Soon we were on our way to the Yangtse River. As we waited for our baggage after arriving at Nanchang airport a thin and worried looking man appeared beside the carousel. He presented his card. Foreign relations. Provincial government. How thoughtful of them. Obviously just a formality.

When we reached our bus, a twin of the one in Beijing, I shook hands with him a couple of times. "Thanks for coming to meet us." But he seemed in no hurry to leave. Now we had two official minders. Three if you counted the driver.

Now we were 10. We only needed one more to make up a football team. We didn't have to wait long. He was in the lobby of our hotel, a representative of the city government of Jiujiang.

He could provide facts, figures, and background. Anything, it seemed except the space we needed to shoot our film. Soon he too was on board the fun-bus. By now we were the size of platoon, and soon we were swarming onto a rusty ferry, its deck already packed with farmers, bicycles, and chickens, as we headed for an island in the Yangtse River.

Reporting in China

The island and its hundreds of vegetable plots had been swamped by huge floods a year and half before. Now it was being swamped again. By us.

Yuan Li, a journalist from the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper, won several national prizes for her reporting of the flood disaster. Now we were joining her on one of her many return trips to the island to report on the long-term impact of the floods.

The flood waters that raged down the Yangtse in August 1998 caused 13 million people to be evacuated from their homes. And they did huge damage to millions of acres of farmland. But they also showed that some things in China are changing. Yuan Li and another dozen reporters who were dispatched from her paper were able to tell the story in real detail.

The country's economic reforms have put newspapers under huge commercial pressure

Compare that with a huge earthquake that took place in China in the 1970s. No casualty figures were let out by the party at the time. Only much later was the staggering toll of 200,000 dead revealed.

Our story was not about disasters, but about the slight yet real relaxation of controls on some kinds of journalism and information in China. Here we were to say how much more Chinese reporters could say now than 20 years ago.

It has been brought about partly because of cut-throat competition among newspapers. Although they are all owned by the government or the party in China the country's economic reforms have put newspapers under huge commercial pressure.

But hang on. Freedom of information? When our whole team was surrounded by officials who were there at least partly to make sure the government knew exactly what we were doing every second of the day? And to make sure China emerged in the best possible light. The chances of meeting a dissident were nil. The chances of hearing a view that directly challenged the government also seemed slight.

Officials get involved

As we stepped off the ferry we stepped into a village and another tier of government. And yes, soon yet another official joined our group, materialising from nowhere. On a 10-minute walk to meet our first flood victim our column snaked its way through the vegetable plots like a 19th century expeditionary force setting out to quell an uprising in a far corner of the empire.

Our attempts to keep the officials behind the camera were not wholly successful. The thin, worried man from the provincial government was perpetually in the camera's arc of fire. He seemed to think he would be invisible if he stayed close to the ground.

So over the next three days he developed a strange duck-like squatting motion, never breaking off from a stream of mobile phone calls, but moving from one piece of inadequate cover to the next, as our cameraman raised his eyes to heaven and waited for the uninvited guest to clear shot.

Mind you, minders have their uses. In the middle of the city of Xian the eldest and most senior official jumped out of the bus and more or less physically cleared a solid 600 yard traffic jam out of the way to enable us to catch the night train to Beijing by the skin of our teeth.

China still has a huge distance to travel before it can claim anything like an open society

But later the same official found remarks by another Beijing Youth Daily reporter so ideologically unsound that he stopped the interview to insist they be rephrased. It was the only such incident in two weeks of filming. I was told the same official once refused to allow a harmless group shot of children in the countryside on the grounds that some of the children appeared to be siblings - a clear violation of China's one child policy.

The presence of the minders, the refusal of permission to visit certain places, the interference and harassment of some Beijing based journalists as they have tried to cover protests by the Falun Gong spiritual movement. All these show that China still has a huge distance to travel before it can claim anything like an open society.

When the Foreign Ministry starts sending a crew bus the right size for the crew, or better still lets us hire our own, we will know they really mean business over freedom of information.

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