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China’s Tolerance for Dissent Tested Amid Arab World Uprisings

April 4, 2011 at 6:22 PM EDT
Special correspondent Jeffrey Kaye reports from Beijing on the Chinese government's tolerance for some anti-government protests and its crackdown on others.
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GWEN IFILL: But not all dissent is banned in China.

Special correspondent Jeffrey Kaye just returned from a reporting trip there. And he looks at what is allowed and what is not.

JEFFREY KAYE: Over the last month-and-a-half, as crackdowns on dissidents have intensified, police in China have also stepped up harassment of journalists who try to report on pro-democracy efforts.

In addition, the government has blocked Internet links to the phrase Jasmine Revolution, a term inspired by uprisings in the Arab world.

(APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY KAYE: Asked about these reports at a news conference last month, Premier Wen Jiabao said it was incorrect to draw an analogy between China and the upheaval in the Arab world. Wen announced the need to, in his words, let the people criticize the government.

But he said authorities would persist in efforts to maintain social harmony and stability. Although China has become notorious for crackdowns on dissidents, some pointed criticism is actually allowed, just as long as the critics know to stay within their limits.

The Western news media tend to focus on what’s not allowed. But, in fact, protests, or what the Chinese government refers to as mass incidents, are frequent. Tens of thousands of them occur each year. Many have sprung from the country’s rapid industrialization which has fueled disputes over wages, population displacement, income disparities and pollution.

MA JUN, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs: It will take some time for the outside world to be able to gauge, you know, the — some of the change, transformation that happened in this country.

Ma Jun is a leading critic of the government’s environmental policies. He runs the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. His organization catalogues China’s severe water contamination. He pushes authorities to crack down more on polluters and says he tries to achieve change by working within the system.

MA JUN: We try to make, you know, judgments about the situation and try to see how far, you know, we can go. So every day it’s a kind of balancing game for us to play. It’s not easy. We don’t want to see chaos in this country. We want this boat to move forward, but also in a — you know, try to avoid some of the torrents and big problems.

JEFFREY KAYE: Advocates for health reform have the same approach. The Chinese government has embarked on an ambitious plan to improve the health insurance system and access to medical care.

But critics, such as Gordon Liu, an economics professor at Peking University, have told the government changes are not taking place fast enough.

GORDON LIU, Peking University: People have the freedom to speak out what they think, what they suggest, as long as you — you say things for the country, for the people, right? Positive or negative, it’s fine. You know, the government can listen to it, can, you know, ignore it. But they now begin to let you say it. I think that’s good. That’s very good progress and changes in China, which were not possible not long ago.

JEFFREY KAYE: The government does allow some media criticism. We were able to work freely without official minders because we were shooting stories about the environment and health care. But journalists who tend to focus on political dissidents say they are routinely harassed.

The limits were recently spelled out in a memo issued in January by the Communist Party’s central propaganda bureau and publicized by Reporters Without Borders. The 10-point notice instructs journalists to avoid reports on collective actions pointing towards and focusing on the party and the government. It is not permitted to discuss political reform, the directive says. Do not use the term civil society or stand in a position opposite to the government.

Fighting the government is what got Wu Lihong in trouble. Wu is an environmental activist who served three years in prison after a decade-long crusade to clean up Lake Tai just east of Shanghai. He says Chinese officials pass laws, but don’t enforce them.

WU LIHONG, environmental activist (through translator): I used to write to our premier and president, but it was no use.

JEFFREY KAYE: Wu says that pollution from chemical factories killed fish and made the water unusable. In 2005, the Chinese government gave him an environmental warrior award. But after he stepped up his criticism, authorities forced a confession of fraud from him, he says, and imprisoned him. He had crossed the line.

WU LIHONG (through translator): In the beginning, I used to work with the local government for the investigations. But the deeper we went, the more frightened they got. They told me to stop investigating. Because I kept telling the truth, they fired me.

Nobody dares to speak out. We don’t have the freedom to speak out. Before I came out of prison, they gave me a warning: If I dare to make trouble again, they will send me to heaven.

JEFFREY KAYE: Containing the spread of information is a government priority. In raw numbers, China leads the world in Internet access. According to the government, 420 million people, nearly a third of China’s population, can access the Web, increasingly through the use of smartphones.

But Beijing’s so-called Great Firewall blocks various Internet and social networking sites, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, sites that have helped fuel the protests in the Middle East.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeff’s next reports from China will look at health care reform and the environment.