President Jiang Zemin's formal consolidation of power after the death of Communist patriarch Deng Xiaoping in February prompted muted calls from within the Communist Party hierarchy for political reform. But while Jiang's program of aggressive economic reform has taken center stage, there has been scant progress toward greater freedom of expression. Pursuing a public agenda of a strong, unified China reaching out to the world, Jiang witnessed China's resumption of control over a prosperous and relatively relaxed Hong Kong in July. In September, the 15th Communist Party Congress offered Jiang a platform to propose further privatization and modernization of China's economy.

Despite his vision of a modern society, Jiang and his Communist Party allies continue to restrict the press and brook little dissent. Chinese newspapers remain distinctly subdued in discussing official events. For example, they published only state-sanctioned reports of Jiang's October visit to the United States, with no mention of the human rights demonstrators who dogged Jiang's every step during the U.S. trip. New press regulations introduced in February forbid the publication of anything that challenges China's constitution, reveals "state secrets," or "harm[s] national security."

In late December, officials announced new restrictions on Internet use, which is growing rapidly in China. Citing the need to control information that might "split the country" or could be seen as "defaming government agencies," the new regulations call for unspecified "criminal punishments" and fines of up to $1800 for violators. In addition, China has pursued a policy of blocking access to World Wide Web sites maintained by news organizations, dissidents, and human rights groups abroad that may carry information critical of the regime.

Beijing's most notable gesture toward human rights and press freedom was the release of dissident writer Wei Jingsheng in November, three weeks after Jiang's summit with President Clinton. The ailing Wei was exiled to the United States as a condition of his release on medical parole, but calls for the release of fellow dissident writer Wang Dan went unheeded. In a disturbing footnote, the White House tried to prevent the Voice of America's television service, which is carried on Worldnet, a television satellite network operated by the U.S. Information Agency, from broadcasting an interview with Wei into China, for fear of offending Beijing. VOA officials reacted angrily to the action, noting that the agency, while government-funded, has a charter guaranteeing that it make independent news judgments. The interview eventually aired.

Fifteen journalists were in prison in China at the end of the year – the largest number in Asia – including Gao Yu, a reporter serving a six-year sentence for "leaking state secrets" in financial articles written in 1993 for Mirror Monthly, a Hong Kong magazine. Denied compassionate medical release despite a number of severe ailments, she was honored in absentia by UNESCO on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, with a $25,000 UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. An enraged Beijing called Gao Yu "a criminal" and threatened to withdraw from the agency in protest.

Despite official resistance on most press freedom issues, there were signs of growing dissent both inside and outside official circles not heard since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. "The continued rapid development of China's economy is safeguarded by reform of the political structure," a top advisor to Jiang, Liu Ji, told the official Xinhua news agency in September, just prior to the 15th Communist Party Congress, "otherwise the consequences are unimaginable." Liu's words, while not acted upon at the congress, nonetheless seem to indicate an ongoing discussion of press freedom and free expression within party circles. Following Wei's release, China's tiny dissident movement was re-energized as calls for greater press freedom began to circulate. It is too early to say that these signs of a partial thaw in China's official intolerance will lead to greater press freedom, but Jiang's desire for further modernization and reform of the economy may eventually lead to a more open media culture.

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