BEIJING | It has been a busy Olympics for China‘s censors, for whom image control in front of a domestic audience of more than 1.3 billion is even more important than China’s image before the world.
Censors have sought to bury negative stories or remove any reference to links between bad news and the games, from the slaying of a relative of a U.S. coach to the suicide of a Chinese official responsible for food safety.
Olympic-inspired media controls began in earnest on the first full day of competition, when Todd Bachman, father-in-law of the U.S. men’s volleyball coach, was stabbed to death at the Drum Tower, a Beijing tourist site, by a Chinese assailant.
The official Xinhua news agency issued a brief news release in Chinese, which referred to Mr. Bachman simply as an “American tourist,” ignoring his connection to the U.S. Olympic team.
The commercial Chinese newspapers that covered the story reprinted the Xinhua report, and most buried the news far from the front page. Again, no mention was made of the games.
In a reminder that China’s public relations war is being fought on two fronts, Xinhua’s English news department and China Daily, the main English-language newspaper, issued a raft of follow-up reports on the incident for the games’ foreign readership.
The Chinese-language press remained silent, but it appears not for want of trying. Notebooks and at least one tape recorder belonging to Chinese journalists were confiscated by authorities after a news conference where members of the U.S. men’s volleyball team discussed their reaction to the slaying.
The careful domestic management of the story corresponded with one of the 21 edicts issued by the Ministry of Propaganda to editors across the country - and later leaked to overseas media - on how to report news during the Olympics.
“In case of an emergency involving foreign tourists, please follow the official line. If there’s no official line, stay away from it,” read point 17.
No mention was to be made of pro-Tibetan independence groups or protests. Stories about the censorship of overseas Web sites were off limits.
Other issues that have in the past been widely reported in China also got the chop.
“All food safety issues, such as cancer-causing mineral water, are off limits,” read the eighth commandment.
The existence of the document was denied by Wang Wei, the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee vice president.
“There is no such 21-point document,” he said at a news conference. “Chinese media, according to the Chinese Constitution, are free to report on the games.”
However, a Xinhua employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect his job, said: “The reporting of the Olympics is being treated with the same amount of political sensitivity as the annual parliamentary sessions.” The employee had “a feeling coming up to the Olympics things might improve. There was a sort of openness in the run-up to the event, which was intended to show how China could tolerate discussion and report more freely. But that seems to have disappeared since the games started.”
The propaganda department’s list also forbade the media from voicing any “negative comments about the Opening Ceremony,” foreshadowing the controversy that erupted over the revelation that the “smiling angel” Lin Miaoke borrowed the singing voice of gap-toothed Yang Peiyi.
Some newsworthy incidents have been completely ignored. A bus crash last week involving members of the Croatian Olympic rowing team that left two Chinese nationals dead was never reported in the domestic media, in English or Chinese.
However, other stories have been too sensational to deny. Olympic organizers last week acknowledged that 26-year-old dancer Liu Yan was paralyzed after she fell from a 3-meter-high platform while rehearsing for the Opening Ceremony.
The accident had occurred nearly three weeks earlier, but Beijing Olympic officials had insisted that she had suffered only a broken leg. News to the contrary soon spread on the Internet and officials were forced to come clean.
Liu Yan’s fate was then spun into a carefully crafted public relations coup as the official media whipped up a heroic tale to tap into patriotic fervor.
“As a dancer, I fell for the sake of the Olympics. There is no regret. My life would resume with beauty in another form,” the China Daily quoted Ms. Liu as saying.
Another news story that almost slipped past unnoticed was the reported suicide of a senior food safety official, Wu Jianping.
The Chinese magazine Caijing, renowned for its investigative work and bold defiance of censors, reported that Mr. Wu jumped off a high-rise building in Beijing just a day after the Communist Party’s Discipline and Inspection Commission paid him a visit to inquire into his suspect finances.
No official announcement has been forthcoming in the Chinese media, and none will arrive at least until “the Olympics party is over,” said Anbin Shi, an associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.
Mr. Shi said many Chinese editors are steering clear of negative stories during the games either because they think their readers are disinterested in anything that might dull the positive spirit or to do their bit for a successful Olympics.
“Every Chinese journalist is a Chinese citizen. For the Olympics, there is a common consensus, often on a subconscious level, that they should make sure everything goes smoothly,” Mr. Shi said. “They must defend their own country.”