China sticks, in part, to vow on media freedom

 
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BEIJING/HOHHOT, Jan 1 (Reuters) China, sticking at least in part to its word on relaxing media curbs, allowed the first visit by a foreign journalist in eight years today to the most senior official jailed over the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests.

It also allowed a Reuters reporter to travel to tightly controlled Inner Mongolia to interview the wife of an ethnic Mongolian who Amnesty International considers to be a prisoner of conscience.

But a request to interview a human rights lawyer in Shanghai was turned down because he had been ''deprived of his political rights''.

Reuters was allowed to interview Bao Tong, 74, a one-time top aide to disgraced Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, in his first face-to-face interview with a reporter since 1998.

''The fact that I can meet you and you can meet me is an improvement,'' Bao, wearing a navy blue tee-shirt of Princeton University, his son's alma mater, said in his sixth-floor flat.

''Even if it is a short-term improvement, it's good. I hope, and many Chinese hope, that the improvement can be long term. It's very good news for all foreign reporters if they can freely report in China.

Bao was the most senior official jailed over the June 4, 1989, protests, purged along with Zhao for opposing the sending in of troops and tanks.

He has been a thorn in the government's side and an outspoken critic of China's human rights abuses and monopoly on power since he was freed in 1996.

Bao has lived under tight, around-the-clock surveillance ever since, with media access denied.

The Foreign Ministry said last month that China would allow foreign reporters to travel and report more freely across most of the country in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, but the relaxed rules will expire on October 17, 2008, after the Games end.

Foreign journalists had needed government permission to report outside their home base -- usually Beijing or Shanghai -- but under the new rules, which came into force today, they need only the agreement of the person they are interviewing.

Security guards checked the journalist's passport in the lobby of Bao's apartment block and said ''people who go to room 606 need to register'' but allowed entry once a family member had come downstairs.

''If foreign reporters are not allowed to meet me, then the Foreign Ministry regulations are fake,'' Bao said.

Restrictions for all foreigners on travel to far western Xinjiang and Tibet, where Beijing's critics focus on the treatment of ethnic minorities, still apply to journalists.

But Reuters was also allowed to interview Xinna, the wife of Hada, tried behind closed doors in Inner Mongolia in 1996 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for separatism and spying.

Inner Mongolia is supposed to have a high degree of autonomy but, like Tibet and Xinjiang in the far west, Beijing in practice keeps a tight rein on the region, fearing ethnic unrest in the country's strategic border areas.

There was no obvious police presence around Xinna's Mongolian language and culture bookshop in Hohhot city, although she pointed to a black, unmarked car with tinted windows sitting outside and said it was probably state security.

''Don't worry, they wouldn't dare do anything to a foreign journalist,'' she said.

Despite the new regulations, however, Shanghai rights lawyer Zheng Enchong was not allowed to meet journalists.

Zheng was detained in July, only one month after completing a three-year jail term for helping evicted residents seek compensation, according to New York-based human rights watchdog Human Rights in China.

''As he's been deprived of his political rights, he's not suitable for taking interviews,'' said one officer guarding the main entrance of the compound in which Zheng lives.

''Please cooperate. There are no new regulations,'' said the officer, whose name was Wang.

REUTERS AKJ BD1050

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