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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Freedoms don't extend to locals

October 26, 2008

Hamish McDonald, Asia-Pacific Editor
Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) Australia
October 25, 2008

TO SOMEONE raised on books like Fitzroy MacLean's Eastern Approaches,
the lure of unauthorised travel in the remote regions of communist
China was always near irresistible. MacLean was the British diplomat
stationed in Moscow during the 1930s, who in between watching
Stalin's show trials of any party colleagues deemed a threat, used to
hop on trains into the barely subdued Muslim regions of Soviet
central Asia, trying to keep ahead of the NKVD secret police.

In the China of recent years, nearly all corners of the country have
been brought into less than a day's travel from Beijing by the
excellent and cheap domestic air network. Except for Tibet, you
didn't have to show any permit to buy a ticket.

But for resident foreign correspondents, there was a catch: the
so-called Waiban rule. Waiban is the short name for the foreign
affairs office attached to provincial and big city governments, there
to facilitate (ie control) visits by foreign diplomats and journalists.

Until January last year, the rule said all correspondents had to make
arrangements through the local Waiban for any reporting trips outside
Beijing and Shanghai, and for any interviews with Chinese citizens
anywhere, even in those two big cities, no matter what the Chinese
constitution said about their rights to free speech.

Getting that Waiban co-operation was always a long process. Asking to
explore sensitive topics and scandals could be guaranteed to get
either no reply, or a rejection on some transparent excuse.

Forbidden fruit tastes sweeter, so most of us made a regular habit of
jumping on a plane or train to get to the scene of a reported
protest, disaster or significant trend without the benefit of an
official blessing.

My first brush with the law taught an important lesson. With my
interpreter, I had been talking to Fu Xiancai, spokesman for
thousands of villagers displaced by the Three Gorges Dam on the
Yangtze River and robbed of their compensation by local officials.
The interview was conducted late in the night, under the bare bulb in
Mr Fu's simple house. Unwisely, we decided to stay in a nearby hotel.

At 1am, a posse of local police barged into our rooms, ripping pages
out of notebooks, deleting photos and computer files, and demanding a
written confession for "illegal reporting". Two hours later they
left, ordering us out of town at first light. Mr Fu got the worst of
it; he was hauled in for several hours of interrogation. Three years
later he became paralysed as a result of being thrown into a ditch
after he spoke to a German magazine.

The first lesson: stay ahead of the posse. Get in quickly, then get
out with your material. Back in Beijing, no one cared when the local
police report eventually made it to the Foreign Ministry.

Two further arrests, one time by armed paramilitary troops on the
North Korean border at Tumen, another time when venturing into a
village hit by riots between Muslims and others in Henan province,
suggested it was best to give up, once rumbled. The worst punishment
that local officials were prepared to administer was the ritual of
written confession - no doubt a humiliation in Chinese culture, but
an exercise in weasel-worded non-apology for us Westerners - and
confiscation of notes that could be reconstructed from memory and phone calls.

The Waiban rule was temporarily lifted in January last year, to show
China was serious about free reporting during the period around the
Olympic Games this August. The suspension was due to end on October
17, but at the last moment the Government issued a new 23-point
regulation allowing foreign reporters to travel freely to most places
and interview anyone with his or her consent.

The frisson of illegality is thus removed but it was never very
heroic on our part anyway. The people really at risk were the local
activists like Mr Fu, or the late Zhu Jinzhong, a remarkable
spokesman for the hidden HIV victims of an official blood-harvesting
scheme at Shuangmiao and other villages in Henan. Or indeed the
city-based intellectual advocates of democracy and openness such as
Hu Jia, who helped many of us make contact with people in places such
as Shuangmiao.

But the lifting of the Waiban rule is not likely to change much
immediately on the ground. The Herald's John Garnaut was arrested
some months ago at the scene of a land-grab by officials in
Manchuria. Foreign reporters were kicked out of regions adjacent to
Tibet, not officially covered by any ban, during this year's uprising
by Tibetans. It will still be hard to visit Shuangmiao. And article
35 of the constitution of the People's Republic of China, which
guarantees freedom of the press, remains a dead letter for Chinese
journalists. They remain under the control of the Communist Party's
Propaganda Department, and according to Human Rights Watch, at least
26 are in prison for crimes such as "revealing state secrets".
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