Chinese Government Relaxes Restrictions on Foreign Journalists for Olympics

May 5, 2008

Under China's Regulations on Reporting Activities in China by Foreign Journalists During the Beijing Olympic Games and the Preparatory Period (Olympic Regulations), issued by the State Council on November 1, 2006, foreign journalists in China need only obtain the consent of the organization or individual they wish to interview. The regulations set aside an earlier provision requiring foreign journalists to obtain the permission of provincial, autonomous region, or municipal government officials before reporting in that area.

More specifically, the Manual for Candidate Cities for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad 2008 (Manual), issued by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), states that candidate cities must:

[p]rovide a covenant from the government of your country stating the following: . . . guarantees free access to and free movement around the host country for all accredited persons on the basis of a passport (or equivalent document) and the Olympic identity and accreditation card referred to in the Olympic Charter.

The Manual further stipulates that candidate cities:

[i]n addition to the covenant requested in question 2.1.1, supply a guarantee, from the relevant authorities that, notwithstanding any regulations in your country to the contrary, all holders of the Olympic identity and accreditation card (including doctors, media representatives, etc.) will be able to carry out their Olympic function for the duration of the Olympic Games and for a period not exceeding one month before and one month after the Games.

The Manual notes that:

[t]he likely number of media representatives accredited at the 2008 Olympic Summer Games is estimated at 17,000 (excluding the Olympic Broadcasting Organisation). The total number of media accreditees for 2008 will be determined following the previous Olympiad.

In its bid, China promised that "[t]here will be no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games," and the IOC's 2001 evaluation report on candidate cities noted that China had confirmed that "there will be no restrictions on media reporting and movement of journalists up to and including the Olympic Games." Just before China won its bid in July 2001, then-Secretary-General of the bid committee Wang Wei reiterated this promise, telling a press conference that foreign media would have "complete freedom" to report when they come to China for the Olympics, according to a July 12, 2001, China Daily article. The Olympic Regulations went into effect on January 1, 2007, and will expire on October 17, 2008. China will host the 2008 Summer Olympics from August 8 to 24, according to an August 9, 2006, China Daily article. As of August 2007, there were 705 resident foreign correspondents in China and 2,060 foreign journalists had come to China on reporting tours in 2007, according to an August 3, 2007, China Daily article. The regulations do not apply to domestic journalists.

The Olympic Regulations set aside restrictions found in the Regulations Concerning Foreign Journalists and Permanent Offices of Foreign News Agencies, issued by the State Council in 1990 (1990 Regulations). At a December 1, 2006, press conference (in Chinese) to discuss implementation of the Olympic Regulations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Information Department Director Liu Jianchao said that provisions in the Olympic Regulations that conflict with provisions in the 1990 Regulations will prevail, but that the 1990 Regulations will otherwise remain in force. Article 83 of the Legislation Law provides that in the case of administrative regulations enacted by the same body, a special provision that differs from a general provision shall prevail, and a newer provision that differs from an older provision shall prevail.

Noteworthy Changes from 1990 Regulations

  • Government Permission and Host Organization Sponsorship No Longer Required: Article 15 of the 1990 Regulations required foreign reporters to obtain permission from the foreign affairs office of the people's government of a province, autonomous region, or municipality directly under the central government in order to report in that area. In practice, many foreign reporters had relied on what a December 2, 2006, Washington Post article characterized as "subterfuge and stealth" to bypass this requirement, but those who were caught were often detained, scolded, or forced to confess to violating the law. Liu said at the December 1 press conference that the requirement that foreign reporters obtain permission from local foreign affairs officials would no longer apply, and that the only permission foreign journalists wishing to interview an organization or individual would need is that of the organization or individual (Article 6 of the Olympic Regulations). The 1990 Regulations divide journalists allowed to work in China into two types: resident foreign correspondents and foreign reporters for short-term news coverage (six months or less). Article 13 of the 1990 Regulations required short-term reporters to arrange their reporting activities through a Chinese host organization. Liu said that foreign journalists no longer need to be accompanied by a host organization.
  • Visa Exemption: The Olympic Regulations provide that foreign journalists holding an Olympics accreditation card will be allowed to enter China to cover the Olympics without a visa (Article 3). Accreditation cards are issued not by China, but by national Olympic committees around the world, under the authority of the IOC, according to the Olympic Charter and a June 9, 2006, IOC press release. Journalists who hold accreditation cards for the Summer Olympics will only be able to stay in China from July 8, 2008, to September 24, 2008, according to the Service Guide for Foreign Media Coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games and the Preparatory Period (Service Guide, Chinese, English). According to the Games' official Web site (English, Chinese) the quota for accredited press will be 21,600, including a quota of 5,600 for written and photographic press, the same as for Athens in 2004 and Sydney in 2000, 4,000 for the Beijing Olympic Broadcasting Co., Ltd., a joint venture between the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee and the IOC, and 12,000 for rights-holding television and radio broadcasters. Another 10,000 non-accredited media are expected to cover the Games, according to an August 7, 2007, Reuters report.


  • Broad Range of Topics: The Olympic Regulations apply not only to the Olympics, but also to a broad range of topics arguably not related to the Olympics, subject to important national security and public interest exceptions discussed below. Article 2 provides that the regulations apply to "the Beijing Olympic Games and related matters," but "related matters" is not defined. The Service Guide, which was formulated pursuant to the Olympic Regulations, says that the regulations "shall apply to the coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games and the preparation as well as political, economic, social and cultural matters of China" (emphasis added). Chinese Olympics and government officials have made similar statements about the regulation's scope, according to a December 2, 2006, article and a December 29 article, both in the China Daily.
  • Definition of "Foreign Journalist": The Olympic Regulations do not define "foreign journalist" for purposes of the regulation but other documents indicate that the new rules apply only to foreigners whom Chinese officials have allowed to work as journalists in China. The new rules clearly apply to journalists holding an Olympics accreditation card. Those not holding an accreditation card must be either a "resident foreign journalist" or a "foreign reporter in China for short-term news coverage," according to the Service Guide. According to the Procedures for Foreign Reporters To Apply for Short-term News Coverage issued in 2007, such journalists, or their news organization, must formally apply to the MFA or a Chinese Embassy, consulate, or visa-issuing institution authorized by the MFA, to cover news in China. The 1990 Regulations, which recognizes only these two types of journalists, prohibit other foreigners from engaging in journalistic activities in China.
  • Exceptions To Protect National Security, Maintain Order: The Olympic Regulations leave intact Article 14 of the 1990 Regulations, which prohibits foreign journalists from engaging in activities "which are incompatible with their status or tasks, or which endanger China's national security, unity or community and public interests." Liu also said that during "sudden emergencies" or "major accidents," officials would take necessary measures to maintain order and that journalists should not interpret such measures as directed at them. "This is current practice in every country," he said. International standards, such as Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, do allow for restrictions on freedom of expression to the extent provided for by law and necessary to protect national security or public order, public health or morals, or the rights or reputations of others. An August 2006 report by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, however, suggests that Chinese officials have relied on an overbroad interpretation of these exceptions to prevent reporting on politically sensitive topics. The report found that officials on numerous occasions detained foreign journalists attempting to cover "social issues such as anti-pollution protests, land disputes, and the plight of AIDS victims," sometimes using Article 14 as their basis.
  • Tibet Autonomous Region: When asked about the Olympic Regulations' applicability to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Liu said the regulations applied to all parts of China. Other regulations that impose travel restrictions to the TAR, however, remain in place. MFA spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a February 13, 2007, press conference (Chinese, English) that "due to restraints in natural conditions and reception capabilities," foreign reporters would still be subject to travel restrictions to Tibet. "Please contact the local foreign affairs office for conducting reporting activities in Tibet," Jiang said. According to the Web site of the China Tibet Tourism Bureau, which is directly under the TAR People's Government, foreigners must obtain a permit to enter the TAR and another permit to travel to closed areas, which include much of the TAR.

The Olympic Regulations do not apply to domestic journalists, who remain subject to a wide range of government and Party regulations, policies, and pressures that encourage self-censorship and hinder their ability to report freely. For more information on China's restrictions on its own journalists, see the Freedom of Expression section of the 2007 Annual Report.


The Olympic Regulations do not include any enforcement provisions and it is unclear how the rights of foreign reporters to report without permission and to interview consenting individuals and organizations will be ensured. The MFA is the "competent authority in charge of foreign journalists" and at the December press conference Liu urged foreign reporters to contact the MFA's Information Department "if difficulties arose," according to a December 1, 2006, Xinhua article. According to the August 3 China Daily article, the Information Department has set up a "round-the-clock" hotline for foreign journalists. Both the Administrative Reconsideration Law and the Administrative Procedure Law, which apply to foreign nationals, may provide foreign reporters with a possible legal forum to challenge administrative interference in the exercise of rights provided under the Olympic Regulations. Neither, however, would cover acts of the Communist Party. Furthermore, foreign reporters may lack standing under the Administrative Procedure Law, which prohibits courts from accepting cases involving state action in the area of foreign affairs (Article 12). The Administrative Reconsideration Law does not expressly mention such an exception.