Monday, October 25, 2010

When China censored premier Wen

Earlier this month, CNN's Fareed Zakaria interviewed Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. But like so many things, many Chinese citizens did not see nor even hear about the rare interview with western media. When CNN aired the discussion, Chinese censors blacked out screens. Mentions on blogs were deleted and media did not even mention the interview had even taken place.

Censorship in China is not unusual. Dissenting views are quickly deleted from blogs and other websites. And those calling for change are often jailed. But the censorship of China's own premier is unusual. It has surprised many political commentators in the West and angered Internet users in China. None were more surprised than Fareed Zakaria, one of few western journalists to be given access to the Chinese leader. During his weekend show Zakaria expressed his dismay and puzzlement at China's fear at allowing its own people to hear their premier speak.

CNN / GPS, Fareed Zakaria: "Now for our What in The World segment. Let me read you a quote; "I believe that freedom of speech is indispensable, for any country." Whose words are those? Thomas Jefferson, Barack Obama? No, those are the words of China's premier Wen Jiabao, to me, when I interviewed him just a few weeks ago. Powerful words from a powerful man. And it wasn't just about freedom of speech but of political reform as a whole, and about the future of China. His words were called 'pathbreaking' and 'eyebrow raising' by scholars. That's why what happened next really got my attention.

Chinese officials 'harmonised' my interview with the premier, that's the Chinese lingo for 'censor'. There was an official news blackout of the entire video. China's official news agency reported that there had been an interview but it did not report any of what Wen Jiabao said. And if you clicked on links to any real news reports this is what you got; a blank page.

So essentially the only place in China to read what he actually said was on blogs and social media that had been able to evade censors. Then one week after CNN aired the Wen Jiabao interview an open letter was sent from 23 senior Communist Party elders in China, to the top politicians in the land. The letter quoted Wen Jiabao's words from his interview with me, using those words as fodder for the case against the invisible black hand of censorship. These former high up officials called on the current leadership to respect what they say is China's constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech. Then China's media began to flout the official censorship and ran quotes from the interview, some papers putting the Time magazine cover right on their front page. And then Chinese officials re-censored it all, reportedly ordering all websites to remove mentions and excerpts of the interview. Truly extraordinary. Amidst all of this the Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao. And once again mass censorship ensued, this time it was blocked out all over, in print, on air and even online. If you typed Nobel prize or the winner's name into Google all you get back is an error page. 

Now China has dazzled the world by the way it handles economic issues. But there's one area in which it still remains extraordinarily backward, and that is politics. Dealing with political dissent, dealing with simple information, free speech. Y'know I was in India last week and I was struck by how on this important issue, India actually has a real leg up, India handles politics, political differences, diversity speech with great skill and openness. 

For China which is such a modern country in so many ways, to have this primitive kind of phony censorship of its own premier's interviews strikes one of an unworthy of a modern nation. China is a world power, it is a great modern nation, it is a great civilisation, but it has to be able to deal both with economics and politics with ease and fluency. Until it does that there will always be a gap between the world's expectations and China's reality."

[CNN video: comment / full interview / CNN: interview transcript]

Not quite every mention of Wen's interview has been expunged. Some clips still remain on Tudou, a Chinese video sharing site. Another popular site, Sohu, also hosts a 24 minute segment. But both are in English and neither focuses on the premier's statements about free speech.

"A lot of Chinese people don't know their premier has been harmonized," prominent Beijing University Internet researcher Hu Yong wrote on Twitter, using the Chinese euphemism for censorship. "Wen Jiabao's comments about political reform being censored at least tells us one thing: In front of the big wall, everyone is equal."

The irony is that by censoring their own premier, China has increased calls for opening up the Internet and raised the debate amongst China's growing army of so-called netizens [WSJ blog].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

No comments: