Saturday, February 22, 2014

Dalai Lama visit prompts war of words with China

China has once again been flexing its muscles and either dictating, or attempting to dictate, the new agenda this week.

Even before the Dalai Lama stepped off the plane in the US this week, China was already rattling a sabre saying that there would be consequences should President Obama meet with the spiritual leader.

Of course such threats were largely ignored by Washington, and were essentially out of China’s control.

Media controls

Meanwhile in China itself, authorities clamped down on media freedom once again, blocking CNN several times throughout the week during its In China series which focused on press freedom.

The roundtable discussion, hosted by CNN’s Kristie Lu Stout, featured The Wall Street Journal’s China bureau chief Charles Hutzler, Foreign Correspondents Club president and Christian Science Monitor correspondent Peter Ford, and Hong Kong University journalism academic Ying Chan.

However, the show was blocked within minutes as it went to air on Wednesday [The Australian]. It is perhaps unsurprising in a country that blocks most western social media websites and controls most of the news output at a central level.

China is ranked at 173 in the most recent World Press Freedom Index due in part to its track record for imprisoning journalists and censoring the Internet The situation also shows little sign of improving. There is no free discussion or an ability to air opposing views without attracting the attention of the authorities.

Reporting risks

Those that attempt to bring change often find themselves in court and imprisoned for years on end. Last month activist Xu Zhiyong found himself in court accused of having "gathered a crowd to disturb public order" after a series of small protests where demonstrators had unfurled banners in Beijing calling for officials to publicly declare their assets [CNN].

Western media who attempted to cover the trial found themselves targeted by police who manhandled several TV crews. A CNN crew was prevented from approaching and filming the court house and CNN's Beijing correspondent, David McKenzie, was kicked, pushed and punched by Chinese security before being forced into a nearby van and driven away.

“The government makes it much more difficult” to cover “the big stories” The Wall Street Journal’s China bureau chief Charles Hutzler told CNN. “And it's gotten much worse in recent years," Hultzer added [CNN].

While western media battles to get the news, it doesn’t face the problems experienced by China’s growing number of investigative journalists. They face battles not only in finding the truth behind the countless number of corruption cases, but also a battle in getting the story published.

Censorship, threats & violence

One such investigator, Wang Keqin, says the biggest problem he faces is not the threats, but the censorship imposed either by the media outlets themselves or the authorities directly.

“China today ought to be a paradise for investigative journalists, the unprecedented amount of shady deals that are happening here is beyond your imagination.” However, Wang has been warned off by officials, paid thugs, and many editors refuse to touch his stories.

He is one of a number of investigators who have been forced out of their jobs. But Wangs says this is only part of the problem. “Our biggest enemy is not physical threats, it’s censorship.”

“What they really need is a good editor in chief who’s willing to sacrifice for the story.”

For western journalists too there is a cost to trying to report the story. In recent years photographers and cameramen have particularly become the target of violence where in some cases their cameras are confiscated or smashed.

There are also inhibiting effects of so-called visa wars where journalists and reporters have had their visas refused or revoked. Both Bloomberg and the New York Times faced restrictions following the publication of stories which highlighted the financial affairs of top politicians and their family members.

Propaganda war

Clearly there is a propaganda war too. And the Dalai Lama’s visit highlighted this very strongly as Xinhua published dozens of articles criticising US policy, the Dalai Lama himself and those who seek Tibetan independence.

But while western media might publish both points of view, China’s media tends only to air the sanctioned view of the state.

China called on the US to hold back from meeting the spiritual leader saying he was engaged in “anti-China secessionist moves” [Xinhua].

Indeed Xinhua went on to describe the White House as becoming a “bully pulpit for Tibetan secessionists” and said the decision to meet the Dalai Lama was “both regrettable and harmful” as well as marking “a flagrant breach of Washington's pledge to refrain from interfering in China's domestic affairs

In another commentary published by Xinhua, the meeting was dubbed a “lose lose deal” that would harm Sino-US relations.

No middle ground

“While it is doomed to fail in its attempt to press for "Tibet independence," or the "middle way" approach that the high monk preaches, the third Obama-Dalai Lama in five years, planned at the White House Friday, is certain to harm China-U.S. relations,” the commentary read.

The US went ahead with its meeting regardless, but did nonetheless acknowledge China’s concerns.

In a statement the Obama administration said it supported the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way" approach to the political tensions over protests for Tibetan independence.

"The United States recognizes Tibet to be a part of the People's Republic of China and we do not support Tibetan independence," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. "The United States strongly supports human rights and religious freedom in China."

"We are concerned about continuing tensions and the deteriorating human rights situation in Tibetan areas of China," Hayden added. "We will continue to urge the Chinese government to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives, without preconditions, as a means to reduce tensions."  [CNN]

China for its part rejects the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” and the US’s support for saying the approach is “at odds with China's constitution and state system in every conceivable way” and that “It is nothing but smoke and mirrors, camouflage and deceit.” [Xinhua]

The debates on this and other issues are fraught with problems. In China there is no real debate, indeed it is one sided, and opposing or dissenting views or opinions are blocked. In the West both sides of the debate may be covered and discussed, but such discussions will not effect any change.

Those who need to hear the arguments, indeed rarely hear the counter argument. It is a situation brought about by a state that fear change, or an upset to the status quo.

But perhaps with the ongoing political and violent protest seen in the Ukraine these last few weeks, Beijing is justifiably cautious in allowing too much debate.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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