With the Winter Olympics set to begin next week in Beijing, a U.S. State Department human rights report from after the 2008 Summer Games in China painted a chilling picture of censorship, violence against reporters and the suppression of dissent.
During the 2022 games, viewers from around the world will be seeing a sanitized version of life in the People’s Republic of China, but not nearly as scrubbed as the version that will be shown to the people of China. When the Summer Olympics were held there in 2008, China’s Communist government tightened its grip on dissent and the free flow of information in the days leading up to and during the Games. Foreign reporters were officially granted greater freedoms, but the government-controlled press wasn’t allowed to report that.
According to the State Department’s “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” published in 2009 (read the full report here), even the Olympic torch relay was censored when dissidents protesting China’s occupation of Tibet were forcibly removed from the route by police, allegedly for their own protection.
Chinese media outlets “received regular guidance from the Central Propaganda Department, which listed topics that should not be covered, including politically sensitive topics. During the year propaganda officials issued guidelines restricting media coverage of sensitive topics, including demonstrations by parents whose children died in the May 12 Sichuan earthquake when their schools collapsed.
“On August 12, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that propaganda authorities had issued a 21-point directive outlining how the domestic media should handle certain stories during the Olympics. According to the directive, Chinese journalists were barred from reporting on the lifting of censorship of foreign Web sites during the Olympics, the private lives of visiting heads of state, and Tibetan and Uighur separatist movements, among other topics. The directive also ordered journalists to report positively on Olympic security arrangements.”
“During the year, particularly during the outbreak of unrest in Tibet and the run-up to the Olympic Games, authorities maintained tight control over Internet news and information,” the report says. “Computers set up at the Olympic press center were subject to censorship, and journalists complained that they were unable to visit some overseas Web sites.” Following complaints by foreign reporters, however, “many normally blocked Web sites were temporarily available during the games.” Even so, “authorities temporarily blocked iTunes” during the games, “reportedly because officials were concerned that Olympic athletes were downloading pro-Tibet songs.”
“During the Olympics, Beijing-based dissidents were forced to leave the city, placed under house arrest, or subjected to 24-hour police surveillance,” according to the report. “Many reported that in the weeks leading up to the opening ceremony, they were visited by state security officials who warned them to keep a low profile. Some dissidents were also warned against granting media interviews.”
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, a professional association of Beijing-based journalists reporting on China for worldwide audiences, “polled its members about reporting conditions following the 2008 Olympics,” the State Department said. “FCCC members reported 23 incidents of violence against reporters, sources, or assistants, along with multiple incidents of destruction of photographs or reporting materials, intimidation, and summoning for questioning by authorities. They also reported 100 incidents of being denied access to public spaces by authorities.”
The report notes that between July 25, 2008, when the Olympics media center opened, and August 23, the day before the Olympics closing ceremony, the FCCC indicated 30 cases of “reporting interference,” and that on July 22, “police manhandled Hong Kong journalists who were covering a crowd attempting to purchase Olympic tickets.” The report also says that on August 13, “Beijing police roughed up and detained a journalist for Independent Television News who was covering a Tibet-related protest near the Olympic village.”
Here are just a few of the State Department’s many other findings about China’s efforts to suppress dissent and press freedoms during the 2008 Summer Games:
• “Prior to the Olympics, customs officials seized a painting by New York-based artist Zhang Hongtu because officials disliked the painting’s portrayal of the Olympic ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium.”
• “The government maintained tight controls over civil society organizations and in recent years, heightened legal restraints and surveillance aimed at controlling them, particularly in the run-up to the Olympics.”
• “The government consistently blocked access to Web sites it deemed controversial, especially those discussing Taiwanese and Tibetan independence, underground religious and spiritual organizations, democracy activists, and the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.”
• “During the year the government increased censorship and manipulation of the press and the Internet during major events, including the Tibetan protests in March through June, the May 12 Sichuan earthquake, and the Olympic Games. All [Chinese] media were expected to abide by censorship guidelines issued by the party. In a June 20 speech on propaganda work, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao reiterated local media’s subordinate role to the party, telling journalists they must ‘serve socialism’ and the party.”
• “Beijing Olympic organizers designated three parks as special protest zones during the August 8-24 Olympic Games. However, the Beijing Public Security Bureau did not approve a single application to stage a demonstration, although reportedly 77 persons applied. At least six of those who applied to use the protest zones later were detained and several were returned forcibly to their home provinces. Two elderly women who applied were administratively sentenced to one year of RTL (Reeducation Through Labor), although authorities later reportedly rescinded these sentences.”
• “Police detained foreign citizens attempting to demonstrate near the Olympic Village or on Tiananmen Square. Most foreign demonstrators were expelled from the country within 24 hours.”
• “In May police in Henan Province detained two Finnish journalists for seven hours while preparing a report on a migrant worker who had been employed on an Olympics-related construction site in Beijing.”
• “The government did not respect academic freedom and increased restrictions on political and social discourse at colleges, universities, and research institutes during the period leading up to and during the Olympics. Scholars and researchers reported varying degrees of control regarding issues they could examine and conclusions they could draw. There were reports that academics who advocated political reform were discouraged from attending academic conferences in the run-up to the Olympics. Others were urged by their schools to keep a low profile and not publish during the Olympics.”
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