China's Game Face

For its inaugural Olympics, Beijing promised to open a door to the press. But will the media get a foot in?
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A year and a half ago, China sent two delegations of public information officers to NBC headquarters in New York City. It was, in a sense, a diplomatic mission. Anticipating the onslaught of foreign journalists who would pour into the Communist nation for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese delegation—comprised of representatives from dozens of provinces—needed some help assessing precisely how the Western media works, and what was expected or needed for them to do their jobs. Their intentions were true.

But mere weeks ago, with preparations still very much in progress for the Games, and despite some clear indications of cooperation and evolution, the Chinese government continued to struggle with the media world's expectations, and their own legacy of isolation. “We still face frequent pushbacks,” says Jaime FlorCruz, CNN's Beijing bureau chief. “We sometimes still see the hand in front of the camera, figuratively and literally.”

This internal battle—wishing to happily showcase the unrestrained drama of the competition while trying to maintain restrictions on dramas closer to home—remains China's biggest Olympic story. With some 20,000 journalists expected in Beijing, the way the government plays out this particularly public marathon will dictate how the country is viewed by the West for years to come.

The start of the run has been a bit choppy. Western news producers talk of a bewildering array of government permits and a reticent attitude from Chinese officials.

“Permission came very late in the game,” says Michael Kreisel, foreign editor at ABC News. “Making plans was very difficult because we didn't know what we were allowed to do.”

When China was negotiating with the International Olympic Committee to host its inaugural Olympics, unrestricted press access was a sticking point. In January 2007, the Chinese government issued a new set of media regulations to facilitate free reporting on both the Games and China itself. But those regulations have been anything but unequivocal, and Western news organizations have found themselves stymied by what they're saying is an impenetrable bureaucracy that too often operates at the whim of government agents.

“We have been through frustrating months of planning, bedeviled by uncertainty and ever-changing rules and regulations,” FlorCruz says. “We talk with one ministry or organization and they tell us one thing. The next day, they are overruled by another ministry.”

One important hurdle may be considered indicative of the struggle on both sides. After two days of closed-door meetings with Chinese officials this May, Olympic coverage rights holders prevailed in their bid to be allowed access to Tiananmen Square. But the hard-fought concession came with many restrictions. Only rights holders can broadcast from the square—the site of the infamous, tragic 1989 student demonstration. And they may only broadcast live from the hours of 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., with no guests allowed during such broadcasts. Taped pieces require a permit.

Premier U.S. rights holder NBC, the media company with the most to gain and lose, will have a significant presence in China. NBC News hopes to have Brian Williams anchor Nightly News from Tiananmen Square, though final plans were not set at presstime. Matt Lauer will report from the Great Wall Aug. 4, and Today will originate live from the Olympic Green beginning Aug. 7, where there is easy access to athletes and no such restrictions. The Olympic Green is the central campus that contains the international media center and venues for most of the high-profile sports including gymnastics, track and field, and swimming and diving.

Spontaneous protests are a grave concern for Chinese authorities. On July 23, the Chinese government announced that there would be designated protest areas at three public parks: World Park in the southwest, Purple Bamboo Park in the west, and Ritan Park in the east. None of the Beijing demonstration sites are within a camera's-eye view of the Olympic Green.

Such “protest pens” are hardly unusual at the Olympics. There were designated areas for protesters at the Salt Lake City and Athens Games. What is unique to Beijing, however, is the stringent permit application process and strict laws governing what constitutes legal protesting. Applications must be submitted at least five days in advance, and applicants must prove permanent residency. There are also restrictions on what the protesters can protest against: anything that is deemed harmful to national unity and sovereignty—such as advocating separatism and “opposition to the cardinal principles specified in the Constitution,” according to Chinese law governing demonstrations—is strictly forbidden.

Representatives for several human rights organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Dream for Darfur, have been denied visas to enter China for the Beijing Games, which begin Aug. 8 with an opening ceremony to be attended by an unprecedented array of foreign leaders including President Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. And while news executives are not quite sure what to expect, the klieg-bright international spotlights will make displays of civil disobedience all but inevitable.

“One would have to assume that there are likely to be some unplanned news events,” says Steve Capus, president of NBC News. “And our plan is to be there and cover them as we see fit.”

“I think [the protests] are going to be a huge story,” Kreisel says. “We are planning that there could be protests that spring up in all sorts of places in Beijing and other parts of China.”

NEWS STRIKES HOME

The deadly earthquake in Sichuan province in May was a painful learning experience for the Chinese government. Its new Olympics-fostered policy of press freedom was tested by a slew of devastating media reports about shoddy school construction and vehement protests from grieving parents, many of whom, because of China's one-child policy, had lost their only child, buried under the rubble of schools that reportedly collapsed too easily.

“Let's face it, some of those stories were embarrassing to them. But we've had those stories on the air. They did not tell us we couldn't do them,” says Capus, adding, “I'm heartened by the pronounced steps that we've seen from the Chinese government and their pledges of cooperation and openness. We hope that they follow through on those promises. And I think that there's an appreciation that news people are there to cover these games and the event of China hosting the Olympics.”

But as the Games draw closer, China is fighting to minimize a range of issues. The International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) has warned that the Beijing Games could be a target for terrorists eager to take advantage of the worldwide media opportunity. The Chinese government has reacted with beefed-up security and a more rigid visa process that has left many would-be spectators locked out of Beijing.

Meanwhile, Darfur and China's difficulties over the question of Tibet's future have already generated a considerable amount of negative media attention. China's lack of intervention to stop the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, where China is the African nation's leading trade partner, has brought condemnation from human rights groups. (Steven Spielberg, who would have lent the games a sprinkling of Hollywood stardust, withdrew early as the game's artistic director, citing China's lack of efforts in Darfur.) Both issues spurred protests during the Olympic torch relay this spring. Despite the presence of Chinese security at relay hotspots, protestors managed to extinguish the flame on multiple occasions.

Uprisings by Tibetan monks last spring garnered national media attention, as much for the Chinese government's move to quickly restrict press access to the region as for the perennial thorny issue of China's sovereignty over the Buddhist territory. “[China] is not a free information society,” says Jon Williams, who oversees the BBC's international newsgathering operations.

Indeed, a long list of Websites, including those on Tibet and Taiwan, at presstime were blocked at the Olympic Media Center. Others, including Amnesty International and Radio Free Asia, have been intermittently blocked. Until recently, the BBC's Website was blocked in China. And during the Tibet protests, BBC World News, the BBC's international television service, “was taken off the air when we referred to Tibet,” Williams says. The BBC's radio and Internet news service are still blocked in China.

Still, Williams resists tarring the nation with a totalitarian brush. “The image that gets around is that China is not open to foreign journalists,” he says. “And it's not true. It's not Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles. My experience is the Chinese are more open to us telling the world about China. They are less open to us telling China about the world. And they are actively suspicious about us telling China about China.

“We need to respect different cultures. My concern in the run-up to the Olympics and going forward after the Olympics is making sure that we tell the whole story of China. Yes, we had some real problems accessing Tibet after the protests, but we also need to tell the story of how China has lifted more than 200 million people out of poverty in the last 20 years.”

The BBC has had a bureau in China for 30 years. Many of the reporters and producers in the BBC's Beijing bureau are residents and as such can travel freely in China, a luxury not afforded to foreign journalists.

WORSE THAN EVER FOR NON-RIGHTS HOLDERS

The Olympics are necessarily skewed toward rights holders. NBC has had the Summer Olympics locked up since 1988 and is paying $900 million for the rights to the Beijing Games, part of a $4.2 billion Olympic rights package that extends to 2012.

For non-rights holders, the competitive disadvantage is obvious. But the bureaucratic red tape in China makes covering news beyond the competition inside the Olympic Green—which is off limits to non-rights holders—all the more difficult.

ABC had hoped to use independent production companies for live shots at iconic locations, but the permit process has changed its plans. The network will instead rely on content partners already in place, including ESPN and The Associated Press Television Network (APTN).

“The Olympics have always been restrictive for non-rights holders,” says ABC's Kreisel. “We are totally used to this.”

Non-rights holders are not allowed inside the Olympic venues and they may only cover press conferences at the main media center on the Olympic Green, and even those can only be shown on a 30-minute delay.

All journalists are subject to the driving restrictions put in place earlier this summer to help quell Beijing's chronic pollution problem. Motorists must adhere to alternate driving days dictated by odd and even license-plate numbers. News organizations have fleets of vehicles with odd and even plates, and have been issued Olympic driving permits with access to restricted roadways including carpool lanes, which should ameliorate some of the inevitable traffic nightmares.

Even among rights holders, there is a pecking order. BBC News is a U.K. rights holder, but NBC Universal is a global rights holder. BBC News had hoped to anchor its main evening newscast from Tiananmen Square, which would have meant going live at 5 a.m. in China. Unfortunately, that is an hour before the officially sanctioned broadcast window set by the Chinese government.

EYES TOWARD THE FUTURE

Even those who applaud China's wary embrace of an independent press are concerned that the government will put a barrier back up when the world's media vacates. “They are much more open than they have been,” says the BBC's Williams, noting the government's attempt at media laissez-faire during the earthquake.

But restrictions on live broadcasting from symbolic locations including Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall, which requires a special permit, indicate that China may be particularly relieved when these Games are over. “I think it's too early to say whether that openness is irreversible,” Williams says. “I think we've seen some worrying signs that it's not.”

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