The Two Faces of China's Leadership

President Hu and Premier Wen are reaching out to the common man -- and coming down hard on dissidents and reporters.

By Mark Magnier

Los Angeles Times

June 2, 2005

BEIJING — Two years after coming to power, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have staked out a two-pronged strategy for political control: projecting a kinder, gentler image while cracking down on those disseminating unauthorized information.

The news this week that a prominent Hong Kong journalist had been detained on spying charges, the third such case in nine months, is the latest entry on the hard side of the ledger, analysts say. Recent months have seen a series of actions against the media, scholars, Internet users and dissidents.

This contrasts with efforts by the Hu administration to burnish a down-to-earth image on other fronts, in part through such policies as cutting taxes for farmers and increasing local subsidies in hope of reducing the yawning gap between rich and poor.

Hu and Wen have also made symbolic gestures, such as Chinese New Year trips to eat dumplings with coal miners, shaking hands with an AIDS patient and ensuring that a migrant worker got paid.

"The Chinese expression is 'The soft get softer, the hard get harder,' " said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley. "They're trying to get closer to the grass roots in terms of people marginalized, to balance a bit the increasing wealth gap.

"But they're becoming even tighter on centralized, top-down controls," Xiao said. "Their media oversight, state security agency and propaganda machine are only getting stronger. It doesn't speak much for political reform."

The news that journalist Ching Cheong, working for the Straits Times of Singapore, had been detained surfaced this week, a month after he was jailed and days before Saturday's 16th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. Ching, 55, entered China in April, reportedly to obtain a draft manuscript of interviews with the late Zhao Ziyang, a mainland leader who was ousted in 1989 for opposing the Tiananmen action.

Ching was detained by mainland authorities April 22 in his hotel in Guangzhou. He has not been formally charged nor has he had access to a lawyer or been allowed to see his family.

This week, Ching's wife went public about his detention after keeping silent for several weeks in the hope it would help win his release. She said the detention was a setup sparked by Beijing's extreme sensitivity over anything related to Zhao.

China's Foreign Ministry acknowledged the detention Tuesday and said Ching had confessed to engaging in espionage for "overseas intelligence organizations" and had "collected a large amount of spy fees."

"The case has absolutely nothing to do with Zhao Ziyang," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said. "We are a country with rule of law. We only act on evidence. He has confessed to it."

Colleagues and family members see it differently.

"Those who know Ching Cheong know he's not the sort to sell himself for money," said Tsoi Wing-mui, executive editor of Hong Kong's Open magazine and a colleague in the territory's small media circle. "He has great idealism and professionalism."

Several analysts said that charging journalists under potentially draconian state-secrets provisions is meant to send a strong signal that passing on insider information on leadership issues is off-limits. Some violations carry the death penalty.

In September, New York Times researcher Zhao Yan, a Chinese national, was detained on suspicion of revealing unspecified state secrets and has not been seen publicly since. The arrest followed a report, which proved correct, by the newspaper that former Chinese President Jiang Zemin was retiring from politics.

Zhao Yan's lawyer told Reuters on Wednesday that Beijing planned to investigate him for fraud as well, which lets authorities start the clock ticking again for seven more months before charges must be filed.

In April, Chinese journalist Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison after a court ruled he was guilty of illegally providing state secrets to overseas organizations. The court did not provide specifics, but watchdog groups say the "secrets," posted on a website, were the propaganda ministry's guidelines for dealing with the media.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reports that at the end of 2004, China had 42 journalists in prison, more than any other country for the sixth year running. Human rights groups and legal experts say China's state-secrets laws are vaguely worded, allowing authorities to apply them with broad discretion.

"These sorts of charges can signal harsh sentences," said Abi Wright, Asia coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "So whenever we see them, and we are seeing them more and more these days, we are concerned."

Lawyer Guo Guoting, who represented Shi, questioned the state's use of the laws in March. Soon after, his offices were raided and he was barred from practicing law for a year.

Analysts say China has a positive story to tell these days with its booming economy, growing diplomatic clout and improved living standards. And Hu and Wen, they say, have done a much better job than previous leaders in appealing to the Chinese people, all of which would seem likely to give the leadership more confidence and a greater willingness to tolerate criticism.

"Many people think Hu and Wen should be confident. But they only see the superficial things," Tsoi said. "China has a big and growing social crisis, masses of exploited workers and lots of social conflict. Chinese society is under great strain, and the leadership is not confident."

Beijing remains highly sensitive about Zhao Ziyang, analysts said, even though he died several months ago. After spending 15 years under house arrest, Zhao's legacy remains.

Circumstantially, the case suggests a split in the upper reaches of the Communist Party, between those who favor more reform, such as an increased use of checks and balances as outlined by Zhao, and those who favor the conservative hard line as advocated by Jiang, Hu and Wen.

"The material about Zhao Ziyang is pretty innocuous by international standards, including the calls for economic, political and legal reforms," said Nicholas Becquelin, Hong Kong-based research director with Human Rights in China. "But inside China, it's still political dynamite that really strikes at the heart of their legitimacy."

Cadres in the top ranks of the party are not above using strategic leaks, and mainland-friendly reporters in Hong Kong are often a conduit for such leaks.

But as the Ching case suggests, something that would cause a minor stir in other countries can be a dangerous situation in China when public security bureaus get involved.

China's 150,000 domestic journalists are also under growing pressure. Several reporters and editors have been jailed in recent months, and tougher media guidelines have been issued.

Leaked memos from the propaganda ministry detail orders not to report on Tiananmen, mining accidents, the banned Falun Gong spiritual group, the chaotic Cultural Revolution period, or even a 2003 incident in which the wife of a wealthy businessman reportedly drove her BMW into a crowd intentionally after someone scratched it, killing a farmer and injuring 12 people.

China's Internet controls, already among the most sophisticated in the world, have also been tightened. In March, several popular commercial and university online bulletin boards were shut down or sharply restricted.

Chinese cybercops have gone undercover as ordinary Internet users to subtly steer discussion groups and otherwise "accentuate the positive and avoid the negative," the newspaper Southern Weekend, based in Guangdong, recently reported.

Some human rights activists acknowledge that Beijing's tough tactics have been relatively effective.

"They're much more efficient than anyone predicted, especially involving control of the Internet," Becquelin said.

But he added that such efforts were a losing battle and ultimately detracted from the leadership's ability to get the information it needed to anticipate problems and remain in touch with the people — part of its soft-side strategy.

"They're resisting, but this is the Information Age," Becquelin said. "The demand for information in China is greater day by day."