August 7, 2008

In the 1970s, the People's Republic of China held out appeal for American intellectuals disillusioned with Soviet Communism. Journalists, academics, artists and religious leaders made the journey. Their admiring accounts reveal, as Paul Hollander described in his book "Political Pilgrims," that most of the visitors saw what they wanted to see, and in any case only as much as their Chinese hosts allowed.

Visitors to China these days are not looking for a successful communist model. After all, no less a cold warrior than Ronald Reagan called China a "so-called communist country." In most foreign policy circles, dwelling on China's communist character is considered slightly gauche.

Indeed, Western newspapers generally do not identify Hu Jintao as the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, even though it is this post and not the state presidency from which he derives his authority and power. The passing of the mass totalitarian campaigns of the Mao era, and the economic and minor political reforms of the late 1970s and '80s under Deng Xiaoping, convinced many observers that economic growth will take the country inexorably toward a freer political system.

However, like the "pilgrims" of the earlier era, today's visitors are not seeing the full picture either. In the late 1990s, when she was U.S. secretary of state, Madeleine Albright visited a judicial training center in Beijing. At a photo session, she beamed as she held up a copy of the China Daily. The headline touted China's commitment to the rule of law. Buried deep in the text were what the paper identified as the rule of law's key elements. One of these was the supremacy of the Communist Party.

Secretary Albright fell into a common trap. The China Daily is the English language propaganda organ of the Chinese Communist Party. Its content is carefully managed and aimed at prominent foreign visitors. While the photographs and coverage of the recent Sichuan earthquake gave the impression of a relaxation in press control, it was only temporary and soon reined in. During the Tibetan protests in March and April, the carefully modulated language that China's leaders use on the world stage was abandoned in favor of harsh "Cultural Revolution" era denunciations of the Dalai Lama and Tibetans.

The PRC's leaders still control what Chinese people read and watch on television on any topic where they perceive their interests to be at stake. All publications and broadcast media are licensed by the government. Journalists are required to undergo Marxist indoctrination and can be singled out to perform self-criticism. Unsatisfactory political attitudes or behavior can lead to prosecution and surveillance. The party's Central Propaganda Department also dictates content through texted and faxed directives telling journalists how to handle sensitive issues like the outbreak of SARS and anniversaries of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The directives and blacklists are kept secret, perhaps to keep their targets off balance, or to maintain the facade of openness that Chinese authorities wish to present to the rest of the world. A journalist, Shi Tao, who relayed the content of such a directive to an overseas Chinese Web site, is in jail on a 10-year sentence for leaking such "state secrets."

The Internet -- through which some Chinese citizens can access overseas Web sites -- has not significantly eroded control of information. The Chinese government has a formidable firewall to block sites it doesn't want its citizenry to view. It's manned by thousands of censors who monitor sites and recommend them for blocking. Although a persistent citizen can evade the technology that blocks foreign sites, the authorities compensate by making the system slow and cumbersome.

Self-censorship and intimidation also play a significant role in keeping the Internet safe for consumption. Many Internet companies voluntarily remove content that the authorities consider politically problematic. American companies like Google, which tailors its search engine to Chinese demands, and Yahoo, which cooperated in the investigation of the journalist Shi Tao, also perform this censorship function. The party may rely heavily on such indirect pressures to contain the Internet's influence, but it doesn't skimp on policing, coercion and repression.

Estimates of the number of people employed to monitor the Internet run into the tens of thousands. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 50 Internet dissidents are in jail. Of course, none of this will be visible to a foreign visitor.

Pollution, skyscrapers and development reflect China's rapid economic growth, not political change. There have been no significant political reforms in China since the 1980s. Meanwhile, economic growth has enabled more intense but sophisticated approach to political repression.

Since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, anything that suggests a degree of organization, or coordination across provinces, is stamped out as quickly as possible and as ruthlessly as necessary. Examples include the religious organization Falun Gong and the China Democracy Party, whose members experienced the most brutal treatment a communist-party system has to dole out, including rape, beatings, shackling and electric shocks, according to Amnesty International and other human rights organizations. While China touts its commitment to the rule of law, lawyers who dare to defend victims of political or religious persecution are increasingly the targets of repression themselves.

The Olympics and their preparations are not leading to a liberalized China. In fact, the opposite is true. Dissidents have been sequestered, detained or sent out of town for the duration of the games. The construction of Olympic venues has led to the eviction of more than one million people. Activists who persist in pointing out the connection between the Olympics and the increase in human rights abuses -- such as Hu Jia, Ye Guozhu and Yang Chunlin -- have been jailed.

There are hundreds if not thousands of other prisoners visitors to the Olympics Games should remember. They include veterans of the China Democracy Party, like Zha Jianguo; petitioners advocate Liu Jie, imprisoned for gathering thousands of names on an open letter seeking political reforms; and Internet essayists like Lu Gengsong who have written about corruption and the CCP. The group China Human Rights Defenders lists eight people in the Beijing area alone still imprisoned for participating in the Tiananmen democracy protests of 1989.

And then, of course, there are the dead victims of Tiananmen. Their exact number is unknown. Despite harassment, threats and frequent detentions, Ding Zilin, the mother of a teenaged victim, and other parents have gathered 188 names over the past 19 years. Not surprisingly, Ms. Ding has been pressured to leave Beijing for the duration of the Games.

When the Olympics are over and the crowds go home, China will have no incentive to relax control. Worse, the party's capacity for surveillance and repression will be enhanced by hosting the Games.

The world isn't just sending athletes to the Olympics, but surveillance technology that will help the government keep tabs on its people for years to come. American companies alone have sold China technology that invisibly copies computer hard drives, reads encrypted text and performs facial recognition analysis on surveillance video.

No one purports any longer to be a fan of Chinese, or any other brand of communism. The problem arises when visitors fail to understand what they are seeing -- and what has been hidden -- and form a mistaken impression of the kind of government the People's Republic of China still has.