Journalism Prof Faces China's Silent Treatment

Jiao Guobiao (search) may not be the only Chinese academic who abhors the state-run media system in communist China, but he is one of the recent few who have dared to write about it.

For his troubles, when — and if — the 42-year-old journalism professor returns to China after a six-month fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy (search) in Washington, he won't have a job and may face a punishment much more severe than a lost paycheck.

"It may be even worse since he's talked to the media," said Lucie Morillon, the Washington representative of Reporters Without Borders (search), an international advocacy group for journalists. "I think he might be seen as a troublesome guy and they might do everything they can to silence him."

In an exclusive interview with on Monday, Jiao said simply about his safety, "I don't care."

As a writer for the Chinese Cultural Newspaper (search) from 1996 to 2001, Jiao had written often and apparently below the radar about China's media, which the 2005 U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices (search) details as closed, punitive and overwhelmingly regulated by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

But in February, he was told that he was to leave his post at Beijing University's College of Journalism and Communications, where he had been for the last three years. His crime, he said, was writing an essay last fall that boldly criticized the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the CCP, which controls the news in China. The article appeared online.

Jiao said the university caved in to government pressure and sent him over to the university's Center for Ancient Chinese Classics and Archives, which he described as a salvage yard for wayward professors. Jiao flatly refused to be transferred, and instead accepted an invitation for the NED fellowship in the United States. Despite warnings from the president of the university, he left for the states in March.

"If I had accepted the university's offer, there would have been no way for me (to continue my work)," he said. "(The president of the university) said if I did not move to the center, then maybe I would be kicked out. So I came to the United States."

The day after he left, March 17, Jiao said his family in China received documentation in the mail that Jiao had left the university "voluntarily" and was no longer a member of the faculty.

His case is the latest example of journalists being harassed, jailed or otherwise silenced — several of them in the last year, say outside monitors.

"China is now the world's largest prison for journalists. We now have 27 journalists jailed in China" as well as 60 "cyber-dissidents" jailed for breaking the tough restrictions on Internet use, Morillon said.

All published stories are run through the propaganda department's review. Punishment for breaking the rules could be anything from a demotion and harassment to a rough visit by government "henchmen," and an extended detention, she added.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (search), 42 journalists are currently in jail in China — five of them imprisoned in the last year alone. One, Lin Youping (search), has been in prison since 1983 for publishing a "counter-revolutionary pamphlet." She was initially sentenced to death but at the time was given a reprieve.

Morillon said the differing numbers of jailed writers in China may come from her group's decision to exclude "freelancers" in their listings since they could be connected to political groups. In either case, China's treatment of the press doesn't compare to other nations, particularly the United States, she said, where even the dozen or so journalists currently fighting jail time here for not revealing sources do not have to worry about the daily risks they would face in China for writing something negative about the government.

"The U.S. is one of the best places in the world to be a journalist. It's a democracy," she said. In China, "they are at risk of being arrested, tortured, and harassed every day."

The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return a request to comment on this story.

Jiao said he is not surprised at the reaction to his essay. He was told not to write about sensitive Chinese politics and he did. He was told not to give interviews to foreign journalists and he did that, too. When he traveled on his first trip to the United States last year for a conference, he "expressed some opinions" and no doubt the "spies" sent over to keep tabs on Jiao reported back "every word," he said.

"I didn't avoid them — I expressed myself freely and openly and I don't care," he added.

Jiao said he taught his students in Beijing about the power of a free press, one that he had hoped the state-run system in China would someday become. In China today, he explained, editorial boards mostly self-censor, eliminating and editing stories to the government's specifications and incorporating the official spin.

"So far, the course of democratic reform following on the heels of the reforms in economic development has not occurred," Dick D'Amato, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (search), told

D'Amato's organization, which was established by Congress in October 2000 to "monitor, investigate, and submit to Congress an annual report on the national security implications" of the United States' relationship with China, is holding a hearing on Thursday to review press freedom in China.

D'Amato said he hopes the hearing will raise awareness of the continued political and human rights problems in China despite market reforms there and will convince members to think about what the United States might do to put pressure on the system in the future. One of those efforts could be to convince American companies not to provide China with the technology to create advanced Internet filters, firewalls and surveillance tools, he said.

At the hearing, Jiao and other experts will testify on the media, Internet and political speech in China. The hearing coincides with the release of the OpenNet Initiative (search) report, "Internet Filtering in China in 2004-2005."

The report says China has the most elaborate and sophisticated system of government Internet controls in the world. With an "Internet police" force in every major city employing the most advanced surveillance and filtering capabilities, the government has managed to block even the simplest Internet searches — like trying to research the Tiananmen Square crackdown of dissidents in 1989 — and has jailed people for passing along banned content or looking at pornography.

"It's not 100 percent effective," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley (search), who will also be testifying on Thursday. "The growing influence of the (Internet) technology can get around this — but it's good enough in a sense that the authorities can still manipulate and control people online."

To Jiao, the crackdown on the Internet is just an extension of the government's controlling hand and heavy boot on all forms of expression in China that seem to threaten the power structure politically and socially. While China has embraced free market reforms for the better of its economy over the last two decades, it has nonetheless kept speech on a tight leash, he said.

Jiao, who is working on a paper about the Chinese media, past and present, said he is using his time in the United States to talk to people sympathetic to his cause and to continue to write and publish his critiques.

Asked why go home if he faces an uncertain fate in China, Jiao said he misses his 12-year-old son. Secondly, "I want justice," he added.

Of his future, Jiao said, "Hopefully, I can work as a freelancer. It is possible I will be arrested by the government if I go back to China because the practice in China is they really don't need a reason to arrest anybody."