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China’s New Syndrome: Fudging the Facts

Blocking Internet, Cooking the Books, and Other Ploys

BEIJING, SEPT. 21, 2002 ( Speculation is rife about China’s future leadership as preparations intensify for the 16th Communist Party Congress in November. Equally intense are the regime’s efforts to stifle dissent and access to information.

The Communist Party propaganda department sent media editors in China a detailed set of instructions this summer on what they should, and should not, report, the New York Times said Sept. 15.

Chinese newspapers and television stations have multiplied in recent years, and are more market-oriented. This has caused an increase in coverage of themes critical of the government, and a reaction by authorities. “The party congress is fast approaching, so we need to prevent problems,” said the propaganda department. “For those newspapers that frequently have problems, we’ll discuss whether to let them keep running.”

Tighter controls on the Internet are also being stepped up. The Associated Press on Aug. 27 reported that a Rand Corporation study, “You’ve Got Dissent,” found that dissidents are increasingly relying on the Internet. But the report also found that authorities are adept at policing cyberspace. Thousands of unlicensed Internet cafes were shut down in the last year, and at least 25 people have been arrested in the past two years for their online activities.

BBC on Sept. 2 reported that access to the search engine Google was blocked. Beijing estimated that 45.8 million Chinese were online, BBC said. This has led the government to employ no less than 30,000 people to monitor Web sites, chat rooms and private e-mail, according to human rights activists.

On Sept 6, BBC reported that China was also blocking, another Internet search engine. By Sept. 14 the Guardian newspaper of Britain reported that the Google gag had been lifted, but with some restrictions.

A Google search on Chinese President Jiang Zemin produces a message saying the information “is currently unavailable.” Searches for information on Tibet, or attempts to access the BBC news site, are also blocked.

No news is good news

Authorities are also allergic to news stories that may reflect negatively on China. Reuters noted Sept. 16 that news of food poisonings spread fast the previous weekend. Reaction was equally fast: An early report citing 41 deaths soon disappeared from the Web site of the official Xinhua news agency. Local residents criticized state media for not reporting the real figure, which they put at more than 100, said Reuters.

The incident does not appear isolated. On July 31 the Age newspaper of Australia reported that thousands of miners die in China each year, with hardly a mention in the media. Only cameras of the official China Central Television or one of its agents are allowed near a mine disaster; foreign reporters are kept at a distance. Officially, 3,393 miners died in 2,014 accidents in China during the first half of this year, but analysts suggest the real death toll could be twice that figure, said the Age.

The quality of information on China’s economy is also under challenge. A study by stockbrokers CLSA claims the country’s public debt is six times higher than officially stated, the Financial Times reported May 27.

CLSA estimated that China’s ratio of public debt to gross domestic product stood at 139% in 2000, compared with the 23% claimed by the government. The big discrepancy is mainly due to the state’s “off-balance sheet” finances, including the debts and unfunded pension obligations piled up by China’s state-owned enterprises.

In its March 16 issue, the Economist magazine noted problems with the figures on economic growth. In February the government said that China’s GDP had grown by 7.3% last year. But Song Guoqing, a senior economist at an independent think tank, the Stock Exchange Executive Council, believes the growth rate could have been as low as 5%.

Likewise, Thomas Rawski, of the University of Pittsburgh, estimates that growth in 2001 may have been between 3% and 4%, or about half the official figure. Rawski observed that China’s GDP officially grew by 24.7% between 1997 and 2000. Yet energy consumption dropped by 12.8% in the same period. He argues that this cannot be adequately explained by more-efficient energy consumption or the rapid growth of industries requiring less energy.

Just crazy for liberty

If controlling the media does not work, then mental hospitals are used to silence dissidents. The Washington Post on Aug. 26 detailed accusations made in a lengthy study published last year by Robin Munro, a British academic who served as the chief China researcher for Human Rights Watch during the 1990s.

The Post also described how a member of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, Fang Lihong, was fired from his job, imprisoned and forced to attend months of intense “deprogramming” classes. He was then committed to a psychiatric hospital, until he escaped 16 months later.

Based on Chinese documents, Munro estimated that at least 3,000 people charged with political crimes in the past two decades were referred for psychiatric evaluation by police, and that most of them were deemed mentally ill and confined.

Munro’s accusations were seconded by a 298-page report, “Dangerous Minds: Political Psychiatry in China Today and Its Origins in the Mao Era.” The study was published in August by Human Rights Watch and the Geneva Initiative on Psychiatry. According to the report, official documents clearly show “that the Communist Party’s notion of ‘political dangerousness’ was long ago institutionally grafted on to the diagnostic armory of Chinese psychiatry and incorporated into the key concept of psychiatric dangerousness.”

A recent attempt to expel China from the World Psychiatric Association failed, the Telegraph reported Aug. 8. Instead, the group’s president, Juan López Ibor, proposed sending a fact-finding team to China for talks about an independent investigation.

The British Royal College of Psychiatrists, which sponsored a motion to confront Beijing, claimed that López Ibor had violated the association’s charter by failing to allow a vote on the move to expel China.

International activists continue to criticize China on other matters as well. Human Rights Watch on Aug. 2 published a report titled “Paying the Price: Worker Unrest in Northeast China.” It analyzed the demonstrations that took place from March through May in three cities, and the government response. In their handling of the protests, “Chinese officials violated fundamental rights to free association, expression and assembly,” the report said.

And, on May 31, Amnesty International issued a press release condemning China for its continuing imprisonment of activists from the 1989 protests. The group has documented the cases of 195 people who are still imprisoned “after swift and unfair trials,” either for their involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy protests, or more recently for calling for a review of the official verdict on the protests. When the Communists gather in November, they can be sure the world is watching closely, one way or another.

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