Beijing appeared to back down in the face of international pressure Friday, removing a wide range of filters blocking access to websites beyond China's so-called Great Firewall. The move followed negotiations with the International Olympic Committee, sought by the IOC after numerous complaints from reporters arriving in Beijing to cover the Games that open August 8. Even at the main Olympic press center, access to the Web had been heavily restricted.
But although access was restored to some long-blocked websites maintained by human-rights groups and news organizations, others those advocating independence for Tibet or dealing with the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong remained off-limits. It was also not clear how far the relaxation of Internet control extended within China, and skeptics doubted it would persist beyond the Games. "Everyone knows that the minute the circus is over, the walls will be put straight up again," says Russell Leigh Moses, a China scholar based in Beijing.
The decision was presented by the IOC as a direct response to its pressure. "The issue were put on the table and the IOC requested that the Olympic Games hosts addressed them," a press release stated. "We trust them to keep their promise."
The IOC has faced considerable criticism for failing to press the Chinese authorities to keep their promises that being awarded the Games would make China a more open society and improve its human-rights record. Amnesty International reported on July 22 that instead of improving human rights, the hosting of the Games had actually had the opposite effect. "In fact, the crackdown on human-rights defenders, journalists and lawyers has intensified because Beijing is hosting the Olympics," the report stated. "The authorities have stepped up repression of dissident voices in their efforts to present an image of 'stability' and 'harmony' to the outside world."
China's failure to live up to its promise of free access to the Internet for the estimated 20,000 international journalists expected to cover the Games has become the most prominent bone of contention between the IOC and its critics. The sensitivity of the problem was apparent in Friday's IOC press release, which seemed also to condemn itself in its eagerness to avoid the appearance of a backroom compromise with Beijing.
"The IOC would like to state that no deal with the Chinese authorities to censor the internet has ever in anyway been entered into," the statement read.
For their part, Chinese officials simply maintained that there was a never a problem. "We will abide by promises we made in the bidding period," a spokesman of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games was quoted as saying in a press release issued 20 minutes before the IOC statement. "The reporting by Chinese and international journalists through the internet is unhindered." At a rare press conference Friday, meanwhile, China's President and Communist Party chief Hu Jintao similarly told a small group of foreign reporters that "the Chinese government and the Chinese people have been working in real earnest to honor the commitments made to the international community."
The move by China to ease up on Internet control temporarily isn't particularly surprising, argues Moses, and says more about the failings of the IOC than China. It also is something that will come with a clear quid pro quo, he says: "It is not the Chinese government backing down in the face of international pressure. This is Beijing doing the IOC a big favor but only for the time being, and with the clear expectation that when the next problem happens the government will be able to deal with it with a free hand."