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Sackur's world

Stephen records the programme introduction at Tiananmen Square
Stephen records the programme introduction at Tiananmen Square

It's been eight years since HARDtalk's travelled to China. The country is changing by the minute and Beijing is gearing up for the biggest sporting event Asia has ever seen. So why do the Chinese authorities still clamp down so hard on anything they perceive as criticism of the regime? Stephen Sackur reflects on his week inside China.

The jammers, the plug-pullers and the internet blockers are hard at work in Beijing. When it comes to controlling the flow of information the "new China" has yet to rid itself of old habits.

The strategy is crude but effective. As I watched my colleagues on BBC World report first news of the riots in Tibet two weeks ago the television in my Beijing hotel suddenly went dark. No testcard, no patriotic music, just a blank screen and silence. When the Tibet report was done, back came the picture.

So I turned to my lap-top. The BBC News website version of events in Lhasa, unavailable; the Guardian story, blocked; lane closures all over the information superhighway. Yes, the Chinese government has now officially unblocked access to the BBC website in English but it's a move which simply underlines Beijing's ability to control the flow of information.

When it comes to controlling the flow of information the 'new China' has yet to rid itself of old habits
And it's not just the English language reporting that is being censored. The Beijing correspondent for the French TV 5 satellite network was doing a live 2-way with the anchor in Paris.

"As the crisis unfolds in Tibet the Chinese Government is trying to control all the information coming out of Lhasa", he said. "In fact reports from foreign broadcasters are routinely taken off air." At that my screen in Beijing again went black. It was almost funny.

I imagined the loyal comrades on duty in the censorship bureau exchanging modest smiles as they contemplated one more small victory for the People's Republic over the rogues' gallery of mischievous foreign elements.

It's not that China hasn't changed. In fact the scale and pace of the economic and physical transformation in the big cities is breathtaking; it's just that the country's Communist leaders have no intention of matching their relaxation of economic control with a similarly bold opening up in politics and the media.

My week in Shanghai and Beijing, recording a series of interviews for HARDtalk illustrates the complexity and the difficulty of the China story in this Olympic year.

Stephen at the book market in Shanghai's old city
Stephen at the book market in Shanghai's old city
The fact that we were allowed in at all was a minor miracle. When I presented myself to the press attaché in London he greeted me with a nervous laugh.

"HARDtalk", he murmured. "Very tough, very tough".

In fact the programme hadn't been in China for eight years - after our last round of rigorous one-on-one interviews the Beijing Government was hardly aching to have us back. But this year China wants to appear confident, open, secure in its own skin.

So the visas came through, albeit a week late.

One of my goals this time around was to test the proposition that internet culture and user-generated content is eroding the Party's ability to stem dissent.

We arranged an interview with Gary Wang, founder and CEO of Tudou, a video sharing website which already has millions of users and aspirations to become a Chinese YouTube.

On the eve of our interview an apologetic and unsettled Mr Wang called HARDtalk producer Jessica Williams. "Things are very sensitive right now", he said. "I can't talk. Even now I'm telling you more than I should". With that he rang off.

A cursory glance at the proceedings of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference - which coincided with our filming in Beijing - provided an explanation.

The Government is planning new and tighter regulations on video-sharing sites. Content is to be even more tightly monitored and foreign ownership disallowed. Whether Tudou can survive in its current, privately-owned form is unclear.

One of my goals was to test the proposition that internet culture is eroding the Party's ability to stem dissent
Government fear of the internet's subversive potential has led some of China's most savvy and ambitious media players to steer clear of web activities that could attract "difficult" user-generated input, from Tibet or anywhere else.

Jung Tan, former president of Microsoft's China operations, is a good example.

He was a high-flyer, recruited in the US and sent back to China at the behest of Bill Gates himself, but he jumped ship in 2004 to run Shanda Interactive Entertainment, the world's biggest online gaming company.

He quit Microsoft just as the company came under enormous pressure from Beijing to restrict political comment on its Live Spaces blogging site.

Microsoft ultimately came to an "understanding" with the Government, as did Yahoo and Google. In one infamous case Yahoo handed over user information to Government investigators which allowed them to trace, prosecute and imprison a journalist who had used the internet to publicise a leaked Communist Party document.

Human Rights Watch condemned all three companies for agreeing to act as "Beijing's censor". It's a charge which has caused them deep embarrassment.

Jung Tan's conclusion is entirely pragmatic: "If you want to make money in China and sleep well at night, stick to entertainment".

This from a man whose company is valued at over $2 billion on the Nasdaq exchange and who keeps a permanent suite in one of Shanghai's poshest hotels.

I asked him what he would do if any of the gamers on his site started to make controversial political comments to fellow players. Would he report them to the authorities?

Jung Tan's conclusion: 'If you want to make money in China and sleep well at night, stick to entertainment'
"Of course. If they are breaking the law they deserve to be punished". What about confidentiality and freedom of speech? A slight pause. And then: "If they are breaking the law they deserve to be punished".

Shanda's millions of gamers have been warned: slaying dragons is fine, creating a virtual uprising in Tibet is most certainly not.

It's tempting to think that the Beijing Government's efforts to regulate, monitor and censor the net and maintain the so-called "Great Firewall of China" are doomed to fail.

After all, there are now thought to be 220 million internet users in China - more even than the US - and many are savvy enough to dodge the super-servers which funnel and monitor internet traffic between China and the outside world.

Some are able to access servers in third countries, others encode sensitive information.

But intimidation is a powerful counter-force. Reporters without Borders believes that at least 30 bloggers and 50 journalists are currently in jail, most charged with "subversion".

The prolific and high profile dissident-blogger Hu Jia was arrested last December and now faces trial and the grim prospect of years in prison. His wife and baby are under house arrest.

An Australian journalist who recently tried to visit their apartment found his path blocked by no less than eight plain clothes policemen.

It's very difficult to gauge just how much the vast majority of Chinese people care about the continued suppression of dissident opinion. In the eighteen years since the Tiananmen bloodshed the ruling party has delivered a remarkable period of economic growth and rising living standards.

Yes, there have been continued challenges to authority based on specific grievances; wretched working conditions, toxic pollution, but the student-driven demand for democracy and overthrow of the Communist dictatorship lost its urgency after the events of '89.

Stephen and Liao Yiwu
Stephen and Liao Yiwu
Liao Yiwu, poet, writer, musician and post-Tiananmen political prisoner, sees a public mood transformed by rising prosperity and rampant materialism.

"When I emerged from my four years in prison I found China had changed", he told me in Shanghai. "I no longer had friends. People ran from me. Everyone was preoccupied with earning money".

Liao himself is no longer the firebrand anti-Communist. After Tiananmen he likened the Party to a dog eating the entrails of the country; now he says he has a "respectful" relationship with officials in his home city of Chengdu.

His writing focuses on those left out of the Chinese economic miracle: the migrant workers, the prostitutes, the old and the sick stuck in village poverty.

The message is reform not revolution.

Has Liao toned down his radicalism because of fear? It's hard to know. He appeared relaxed though he did admit that he was only allowed to travel to Shanghai for our interview after he assured local police chiefs he would "stay out of trouble".

He remains a blacklisted author whose books are officially banned, and in this Olympic year he's been told he'll be re-arrested if he goes to Beijing. ("It's OK" he told me drily. "I can't stand sports".)

Over the next few months hundreds of journalists will head to China to take the pulse of the nation in the run-up to the Beijing Games. For the event itself 30,000 accreditations are to be issued.

As the last couple of weeks have illustrated, the Olympics represents not just an opportunity for China to showcase its achievements and global status, but also for opponents of the dictatorship to garner unprecedented attention.

Covering the former will be straightforward; reporting the latter, and putting it in context, will be anything but.

Previous Sackur's World stories

video and audio news
Stephen Sackur talks to Tang Jun, President of Shanda Entertainment about the potential for the internet in China.

Tang Jun talks about 'The Great Firewall of China".

HARDtalk talks to Changhua Wu, Greater China Director, The Climate Group, about environmental and climate change in China, and the government's response to it.

Changhua Wu discusses whether it is easier to deliver environmental change under authoritarian rule?

Stephen Sackur talks to Liao Yiwu, writer and musician, about his time in prison and his work depicting China’s underclass.

How does Liao Yiwu feel towards his country?

Stephen Sackur asks Liao Yiwu. Has his struggle for freedom become lost in modern day China?

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