Et tu, Beijing?

Tough new policies and civil unrest will make for an uneasy spring and summer for the Chinese government

March this year came in like a lion in China, the tail end of some of the worst winter weather in decades, perhaps in a century. Heavy snow during the Spring Festival period in mid-February closed roads in 13 provinces, much of them in southern areas that don't receive any snowfall in the average year.

The blizzards couldn't have come at a worse time. Spring Festival, China's most important annual holiday (also known as Chinese New Year), sees more than 100 million people traveling to visit relatives. The result was chaos: At one point, 600,000 people were stranded at the Guangzhou train station — the nation's largest rail hub — many sleeping outside in the cold as they waited days for departure. People died of exposure.

This wasn't the modern, polished image China wanted to show the world during the run-up to the Summer Olympics.

But even that tragedy seemed to pale in terms of shock value amid subsequent dramatic video bites of the riots in Tibet that flashed around the world on 24-hour TV news channels and global Web sites; reports of deaths on the tear gas-filled streets of Lhasa; and images of protesters disrupting the lighting of the Olympic Flame, images kept off mainstream media in China.

All this creates real uncertainty about how China will react to political protests or other unrest that might occur during the Olympics, both in Beijing and in the provinces.

"Recent events have proved that despite the best of intentions, China's policymakers continue to struggle to find a balance between the promise of openness and the challenge of building a 'harmonious society,' " says David Wolf, CEO of Wolf Group Asia, a Beijing-based media and technology consultancy. The phrase "harmonious society" is often used by leaders in Beijing to describe the ruling Communist Party's goal of achieving socio-economic stability.

"For the foreseeable future, the exigencies of domestic politics will continue to trump the aspiration for a kinder, gentler global image," Wolf says.

Estimates for the number of visitors to Beijing during the period surrounding the Games range from 500,000-2 million. Among them will be 30,000 journalists with official credentials, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. As many as five times that number of unofficial journalists — including bloggers and journalists arriving on tourist visas — also could put Beijing under the microscope.

As pressure groups turn up the heat on official sponsors of the Beijing Olympics, media companies seeking to use the Games as their launchpad into the China market could face increased control by Chinese media regulators and opposition from political action groups abroad.

"In the eyes of regulators, the media's first role is to support the stable development of Chinese society. Companies in the business will find opportunity here only to the extent that they are prepared to take on that obligation," Wolf says.

President Bush is among 250 world leaders who have accepted Chinese President Hu Jintao's invitation to attend the Games. Traveling with Bush in August will be one of the largest U.S. trade contingents ever to set foot in China.

China's Olympic preparations have received one body blow after another, including the highly publicized decision by Steven Spielberg to withdraw from his position as an artistic adviser to the Games' opening and closing ceremonies. The director cited his concerns over China's lack of action in resolving the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

It was against this backdrop in March that political representatives arrived from around the country for the annual legislative confab, the National People's Congress. With the Olympics less than six months away, it seemed a good platform for China's top lawmaking body to demonstrate its commitment to a more open society.

The first indications that openness wasn't on the agenda came from Liu Binjie, head of the General Administration of Press and Publications. Just ahead of the NPC, Liu told state-run media that creating a film ratings system was tantamount to the mass production of pornography. While Liu's GAPP has influence over distribution of home video products, a film ratings system would ultimately be determined by the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television, making Liu's comments appear to be coming from left field and reflecting an ongoing historical jurisdictional conflict when it comes to media in China.

Two days later, on March 7, SARFT quietly banned "Lust, Caution" star Tang Wei from appearing in Chinese films and television broadcasts, and an advertisement featuring her was pulled from the airwaves. The ban was linked to graphic sex scenes in which she appears in the film. About seven minutes was cut from "Lust" before it was given a general release in China.

The Tang ban marked the second time in three months that SARFT sanctioned members of a cast or production team after a film not only had received a cinematic run but also a home video release. In January, the producers of "Lost in Beijing" received a two-year ban from the industry for using material from deleted scenes to promote the film online.

As legislators toiled through the NPC, the government faced a new challenge: the eruption of protests in Tibet. Aside from sending military forces to the area, China also blocked YouTube because of protest videos uploaded to the site.

Last weekend, Chinese authorities said that they might not allow live shots of Tiananmen Square during Olympics broadcasts. One can only imagine the reaction if Athens had banned live shots of the Parthenon or Sydney had blocked filming of its Opera House.

Yet China continues to present itself as a more open nation, one that welcomes foreign investment, visitors and media. New regulations went into effect Jan. 1 allowing foreign journalists to interview anyone they choose, provided the subject agrees.

However, harassment of foreign reporters, including physical intimidation and even violence, continues. "We are particularly troubled by repeated violations in several areas — including in Beijing and Hebei — where plainclothes thugs have intimidated or physically assaulted foreign journalists," Foreign Correspondents Club of China president Melinda Liu, also Newsweek's Beijing bureau chief, said in January.

Since the unrest began in Tibet, state media has pushed back against foreign media in China, deflecting criticism about treatment of reporters and focusing on mistakes made in the coverage of the riots by CNN, the Washington Post, the BBC, Fox TV and Germany's RTL. The official Xinhua news agency reported that tens of thousands of Chinese posted bulletin board messages slamming CNN and others for intentionally neglecting the "cruelties of the (Tibetan) mobsters," thus revealing the foreign outlets' "hypocrisy in objectivity and fairness."

Nowhere does Xinhua mention that part of the challenge to accurate reporting from Tibet is that foreign journalists are denied access to the region.

Concerns over the prospects of China's media environment arose this month at the Hong Kong International Film and TV Market. Although interest in the China film market remained high among attendees, SARFT's heavy-handed regulation is starting to turn off parts of the industry.

"The enthusiasm for China has definitely waned," said Michael George, managing director of MTG Media, a Ventura, Calif.-based company that helps Asian companies sell their screened content outside Asia. "The general sentiment is that China has made it clear they are using censorship as a quota system, and outside sellers have accepted it."

Filmart also saw an announcement by the Weinstein Co. that its production "Shanghai," a thriller starring John Cusack and Gong Li and set in that city, would shoot in Thailand after being refused a shooting permit in China. Although sources cited possible script problems — like Japanese military officers being portrayed too positively — it also is likely that "Shanghai" fell between the cracks of an upcoming Chinese ministry shuffle, one that would combine technology and media regulators such as SARFT and the Ministry of Information Industry.

Whether March will go out like a lamb for media businesses or continue as a lion into the Games remains to be seen. Regardless, an uncomfortable spotlight has fallen upon China, and the nation will be under that hot light through summer.
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