Since the devastating earthquake a week ago today, Beijing has loosened its grip on the press and the Internet.
Last Friday, in an effort to provide greater transparency and accountability, officials from the education and housing ministries appeared on People's Daily Online and addressed, in real time, charges from the country's outraged online community that corruption and shoddy workmanship were the reason why a disproportionately large number of the structures that collapsed during the quake were school buildings. Indeed, the degree of openness with which Chinese media have covered the earthquake crisis is unprecedented.
Last Friday also brought the heartening news of the release of cyber-activist Zhou Yuanzhi. The 47-year-old former tax official was detained on May 3 on suspicion of "inciting subversion." Zhou is a prolific writer, hundreds of his articles have appeared on overseas-based Chinese-language websites. Following the 2007 publication of an expose on corruption in the shipping industry, Zhou was subjected to repeated interrogation and harassment.
It is far too early to say, however, that Zhou's unexpected release and Beijing's newfound tolerance for criticism in the aftermath of the earthquake signal a fundamental change in policy. On the other side of the ledger, Chen Daojun, a 40-year-old journalist detained on May 9, also on suspicion of "inciting subversion," remains in custody. Four days prior to his arrest, Chen had published on an overseas website an article calling for a boycott of a chemical plant under construction near Chengdu, Sichuan province. And this past April, shortly after the unrest in Lhasa began, Chen expressed his admiration for the Tibetans who "valiantly resisted official oppression."
The May 13 sentencing of journalist Qi Chonghuai to four years in prison on charges of "extortion" is another worrying indicator that the occasional easing of control over media and the Internet is not necessarily a harbinger of things to come.
Qi, 42, was arrested in June of 2007 after posting an article on the anti-corruption forum of the Xinhua website. The piece exposed waste, fraud and abuse within the local chapter of the Communist party in Tengzhou, Shandong province. While in pre-trial detention, Qi was repeatedly subjected to physical abuse. He was eventually convicted despite the fact that none of the more than 30 witnesses for the prosecution even showed up in court. And after attempting to speak to his wife during a break in the trial, Qi was dragged out of the courtroom by two policemen who then hit his head against the floor.
Shortly before the catastrophic earthquake, Beijing sought help from Western PR firms to repair an image that the March crackdown in Tibet had left in tatters. The government's handling of post-quake relief operations and its episodic relaxation of censorship have generated for it more goodwill--both at home and abroad--than any image-repair job a PR campaign could have hoped to accomplish. Time will tell what lessons China's leadership will draw from all of this.