HONG KONG—A former top aide to late ousted Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang has called for greater press freedom as Beijing counts down to the 2008 Olympics, praising a recent government directive as a step in the right direction.
Bao Tong, who has remained under house arrest at his Beijing home since his boss's ouster during the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square, said he was "very pleased" about new rules that allow foreign journalists to interview individuals and organizations without asking government approval first.
"Last year the Foreign Ministry announced a new set of regulations, the most notewothy of which was No. 6: 'From Jan. 1, 2007, foreign journalists will need only to obtain the consent of the organizations or people they wish to interview, and will not need to obtain the approval of the authorities first as in the past'," Bao wrote in a commentary aired on RFA's Mandarin service.
"On Jan. 1 and 17, Reuters did two interviews in quick succession with me, and the authorities didn't interfere with their reporter's activities at all. It looked as if the new rule was being put into effect, and I was very pleased," he said.
Could it be that our country is just playing power games and that its long-term view is in fact against press freedom?
"The first time I was interviewed, the journalist asked me directly what I thought of the new rules. My answer was definite. I said, 'This is a step forward. If it is put into practice for just a day, then that's a day of progress. If it is upheld in the longer term, then that'll be long-term progress.'"
But Bao said he was concerned that Beijing's apparent wave of liberalism ahead of the Olympic Games also appeared to carry a sell-by date.
"Article 9 of the new guidelines states: 'These regulations come into effect on Jan. 1, 2007, and will be abolished on Oct. 17, 2008.' Some people say it is hard to understand this clause. I have the same feeling," he wrote.
"Could it be that the State Council's regulation isn't a good one? Why does it have to be boxed in like this? Could it be that our country is just playing power games and that its long-term view is in fact against press freedom?"
He went on to warn that just because two interviews had passed off without any obvious interference, nothing could be taken for granted.
"There's always a danger that while Reuters was allowed to interview Bao Tong, that other journalists may still be prevented from interviewing far more newsworthy citizens in future," Bao said.
"However, I believe that this new rule could have a protective function, being able to ward off misfortune in the event of attempts by officials or departments having the gall to go against a State Council directive."
"We should be vigilant, because there are still plenty of evil forces in China that would love to rip apart press freedom," Bao said, citing the case of a reporter from the China Trade Journal who was beaten to death after trying to get to the truth behind a mining disaster in Shanxi.
"Some said that even the president of China took notice of this case. I hope that this incident...will persuade the State Council to issue another order saying that Chinese reporters have the same freedoms and rights as foreign journalists when it comes to newsgathering, and that these rights should be respected by all and not infringed upon," he said.
He also called on the government to specify how it would discipline officials who refused to abide by the new rules and interfered with the work of journalists.
Original text in Mandarin by Bao Tong. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.