Strong-arm tactics alleged in struggle for China's image

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John Garnaut, Beijing
December 6, 2007

A NON-PROFIT newsletter editor says Beijing security officials tried to bribe him before shutting down his publication and barring his re-entry to China.

Nick Young, editor of China Development Brief, quoted a senior official as threatening: "You can be the Government of China's friend or our enemy; there is no other way."

Young says his newsletter was closed when a dozen officials, police and security agents arrived at his office on July 4. His ordeal was reported at the time.

Subsequently, however, Young says he met a senior security officer named Song, who introduced himself as being "in charge of watching terrorism and NGOs". Mr Song offered to "provide funds to expand our publishing and make it 'famous' while helping the world to understand China better", according to Young.

The negotiations failed, Young's newsletter remained shut and he was refused re-entry to China when he returned from a European holiday.

"To believe that a better relationship could be achieved by bribery and bullying is not only absurd but also deeply worrying," Young writes in the latest Christian Science Monitor.

His newsletter had a circulation of about 5000 and was widely regarded as the only informative publication about civil society in China.

"It was like the bible," said one person who previously worked closely with AusAID projects in China, adding that its analysis was fair but sometimes "fierce".

It is not clear whether the Chinese Government was offended by the content of Young's newsletter or he simply ran into one overzealous senior official. But the experience provides a rare case study of the carrot-and-stick treatment that Chinese activists sometimes say they receive.

For example, parents who have grouped together to search for their kidnapped children have been both enticed and threatened to disband, because their activities are said to show China in a bad light.

One parent said security officials had "bought off" other parents with promises that they would receive favours — while the same officials obstructed and intimidated other parents who declined to oblige.

China's information management apparatus is massive and extends to all levels of government. It is difficult to tell if tighter restrictions this year represent a new trend or a temporary response to major events such as next year's Olympics.

China Digital Times recently published what purports to be a transcript of an "external propaganda" conference in Suixi County, Anhui, where officials were told to control information in order to make their region look good.

The transcript says: "Every county, township and each department must make sure it controls and reduces negative news. The information centre of the county government must quickly block, divert and respond to bad public opinion and information online, under the principles of unity, stability and positive inspiration."

Estimates of the number of Chinese internet police range widely, but start from about 50,000.