Reading Western reports about what happens in dictatorship often leads me to wonder if reporters used to freedom are capable of understanding the real dangers facing those living without it. A particularly troubling case in point is a side story to an excellent FT report about unrest in the Chinese countryside entitled Little room for dissent in Shananxi.
The reporter sought out for an interview Zhang Sanmin, a dissident released after 20 days of interrogation. Upon learning of the reporters' presence in the village, the authorities rushed to stop the interview and as they often do, detained the reporters :
The security personnel followed a routine familiar to foreign reporters who venture where they are not wanted. Mr Zhang was pushed around and some of his documents were taken, but he was not arrested while we remained on the premises.
We were marched to our car, and then a scuffle broke out when police tried physically to drag my Chinese assistant away for questioning.
Eventually, we were taken to the local government office where I was interrogated and lectured for over an hour before officials sent us on our way.
Obviously, foreign reporters enjoy much greater freedom than citizens and their presence even protects dissidents but only temporarily. One would assume that reporters aware of such reality would be careful to protect these vulnerable dissidents and their families.
Wrong! Read on-
Shortly after we left, Mr Zhang received a death threat and security officers returned to tell him he was to be rearrested.
That night Mr Zhang disappeared. and it was not until a week later that he felt safe enough to contact his wife to let her know he had run away out of fear of what was in store. More than a month after our visit he remains in hiding.
In other word, the reporter has just informed the Chinese authorities that Zhang Sanmin's wife is in contact with her husband and in contact with the foreign reporter.
Why? For what purpose? Stupidity? Carelessness? The only answer I can come up with is a failure of imagination or the absurd belief that what they publish in the West is unknown in the East. I am convinced that had reporters truely understood the Chinese reality their coverage not only of China but of other dictatorship would have been far different than it has been.