February 21, 2002

February 21, 2002 | Commentary on Asia

Free Speech: Beijing Prepares to Censor Bush

It has become a tradition before every visit by a U.S. president for Beijing to promise not to censor his remarks. This latest trip by George W. Bush is no exception. Speaking on Feb. 6, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman pledged that Mr. Bush's press conference today, and his speech at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University tomorrow, will be broadcast live and -- most importantly -- uncut.

But China's past record suggests this is a promise that is unlikely to be kept. For instance, during former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's visit to Beijing in 1984, White House officials arranged to have his speech to a handpicked audience of communist illuminati at the Great Hall of the People aired on China's nationwide television.


Instead it was taped and comments that Beijing considered "objectionable" excised prior to transmission. These included his declaration that the American people "have always drawn tremendous power from two great forces -- faith and freedom." Also deleted was Mr. Reagan's attempt to introduce the Chinese people to Abraham Lincoln's dictum that "no man is good enough to govern another man without the other's consent." It was hardly tough talk. But it was apparently tough enough for a senior U.S. State Department official to lose his temper -- not at the Chinese, but at the White House speechwriter whose words were "so provocative that they had to be censored," according to Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Mann's account in his book "About Face."


When Mr. Reagan tried again the next day, in an interview with China Central Television (CCTV), the censors went to work once more. His explanation of how  "economic growth and human progress make their greatest strides when people are secure and free to think, speak, worship and choose their own ray to reach for the stars" was never broadcast.


While there was no reports of censorship during a February 1989 visit by then President George Bush -- father of the present president -- there was a memorable incident in which Chinese security officials physically prevented a prominent democracy activist, Dr. Fang Lizhi, from attending a banquet at the Great Wall Hotel to which he had been invited by the president.


Former U.S. President Bill Clinton's otherwise warm two-week visit to China in July 1998 was also marred by efforts to prevent the Chinese people from hearing his public statements. Then U.S. National Security Adviser Samuel Berger did manage to persuade Beijing to agree to live television coverage of both a joint press conference with Chinese President Jiang Zemin and his speech at Beijing University. But Beijing made no prior announcement of this -- so no one knew these events were being broadcast and there was no audience. Although CCTV did cover the press conference in its regular news bulletins, it made no reference to Mr. Clinton's condemnation of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre or his praise of personal liberties. Nor was there any mention of his Beijing University speech, or a church visit where he addressed 2,000 parishioners.


The same thing happened again during U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's overnight stay in Beijing in July 2001. As part of the advance work for the visit, CCTV gave a "clear and explicit agreement" that an interview with Mr. Powell would be carried in its entirety. But it wasn't. Even the U.S. State Department had to admit that "they chose to renege on that agreement" -- a decision it said was made by the Beijing leadership.


In the censored portions of Mr. Powell's interview -- about a fifth of the total program -- he called on China to establish a "rule of law, having standards with respect to international law and trying to meet those standards that are expected in the international community with respect to freedom of...religion and various human rights." Not surprisingly, the Chinese blanked out his frank comments about the Taiwan Relations Act and its mandate for continued arms sales to Taiwan. But they even edited out Mr. Powell's seemingly anodyne observation that "as a black man 40 years ago, it would have been unthinkable for me to dream about becoming secretary of state. But here I am . . . so we have changed."


President George W. Bush has already had a taste of Chinese censorship. During his short stay in Shanghai last October for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum leadership summit, the Chinese heavily edited his comments at a joint press conference with Mr. Jiang. Chinese viewers saw only a delayed and censored version of the supposedly "live" news conference on Oct. 19. For example, CCTV edited out President Bush's warning that "the war on terrorism should not be used to persecute ethnic minorities" and intervened to prevent foreign television networks from transmitting live coverage of the event.

So President Bush should be prepared for the Chinese to censor his comments yet again during this visit. And he should be under no illusions that Beijing's leaders -- despite their promises -- are any more willing now than they have been for the past 20 years to let the Chinese people hear directly from any U.S. president.


John J. Tkacik, Jr., is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. He is a retired foreign service officer who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal.