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Negus Media International

Kirsty Cockburn
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Just two days to go and with the debate raging over China and media freedom - including, on last week's program, Dateline’s own brush with the mysterious "five forbidden topics" - the Olympics themselves already have been almost run over by the politics of the Olympics. Before the story exploded around the world that China was blocking Internet access to so-called politically sensitive sites, Dateline lined up an interview with a very senior Chinese Government spokesman. Officially, Ambassador Liu Guijin is the government's African envoy. But with the press freedom story running hot and with government spokesmen thin on the ground, George Negus raised the issue with him at the Foreign Office here in Beijing.

GEORGE NEGUS: Ambassador, thank you very much for your time. I know we are going to talk about Africa, Darfur and Sudan but I can't have a top-ranking foreign official like yourself sitting with me and not say to you that the rest of the world is concerned about media freedom during the Olympic Games.

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN, SPECIAL ENVOY TO DARFUR: Well, me, myself was not concerned that it was that because we have been used to that kind of criticism, actually.

GEORGE NEGUS: But do you think that at the moment you're making it easy for people to criticise China?

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: I think we have fulfilled our commitment to the International Olympic Committee. I think to make sure that the media people have freedom to cover, freedom to talk, freedom to interview people.

GEORGE NEGUS: People are concerned now that there are restrictions on Internet access. There are certain topics, certain political issues that we've been told are so sensitive the government does not want us to cover them. I mean, this sounds like an attempt to censor the international media and stop us from doing our job.

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: I don't personally think so. As our spokesman indicated to the reporters, we need to check with the information centre in the Olympic Games place there to see whether there are some kind of technical problems or things like that.

GEORGE NEGUS: But if I was to try and access the Falun Gong's website or Amnesty International...

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: I think Falun Gong maybe is a difference. It's a special case because Falun Gong is a illegal... a illegal organisation here in China.

GEORGE NEGUS: What about Amnesty International and other human rights organisations?

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: So that might, you know, involved with some consideration, so some technical problems which for me myself is very hard to explain.

GEORGE NEGUS: Not censorship?

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: Well, as I told you, I am not in a position to make more comments about that because we have proper people and proper organisations who are dealing with that.

GEORGE NEGUS: I understand. One thing that I would like to suggest to you is that, because of this issue, is China to be trusted? Is China telling us the truth?

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: I think they have a very good reason to trust China and China keeps on telling truth and we continue to do that. And I think some of the media people if they wish to know things in detail, if they really feel we are not acting properly, I think you can reach the issue. You can talk to people who are responsible for the issue. But definitely it's not me.

GEORGE NEGUS: You were so well-travelled and experienced I thought you would definitely have a view. The International Olympic Committee are themselves concerned about this.

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: I think so, I think so.

GEORGE NEGUS: They said they are disappointed, that they think that China was granted the Games because they were committed to opening up the country to scrutiny - Jacques Rogge's, the IOC President's, own words. And now we feel we can't necessarily scrutinise your country in certain areas.

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: Yes, I think we are serious and we have committed. That is the habit of the Chinese Government, Chinese people - whatever we commit, we will try to fulfil that.

GEORGE NEGUS: Is it possible that we don't understand the Chinese definition of freedom - let alone freedom of the press?

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: Well, that's just a big question. That will take me more than half an hour to discuss that, so I don't think today is the proper time. But we do have different interpretations of freedom but at the same time the Chinese Government and Chinese people have recognised the universalities of the freedom. At the same time, considering our background as a developing country, of course we have our own priorities. We have our own historical background so that different historical cultural background sometimes makes people have different interpretations, that historically there are different perceptions on the same thing. That is something quiet normal. But today definitely not the proper time to discuss freedom.

GEORGE NEGUS: Yes, I understand. Talking about freedom, are we free to talk about Darfur and Sudan? That is your area of expertise. Is that OK? That is not one of the forbidden areas?

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: No, no you can talk about whatever issues with regards to Darfur.

GEORGE NEGUS: Why do you think it is that the world seems to be divided about China's role in Sudan on the issue of Darfur and the genocide there? I mean, I would hate to link it to the Olympic Games, as some people have called these Games the Genocide Games because of what's happening in Darfur and China's role in it.

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: So when you say that the world is divided, you mainly refer to the Western parts of the world. So, different places where I go, I hear different opinions, different comments, different, you know, ideas about what's happening there in Darfur. So the developing countries, particularly, most of the Arabic countries and African countries do not think that China should be blamed about what is happening there in Darfur. But in Western countries we have heard some of the criticism, some of the allegations against the China from NGOs, particularly NGOs who are based in Washington like Save Darfur Coalition... But I think the problem is that there are diversified opinions, there are different positions of different interest, different people, different organisations, so the reasons are very complicated.

GEORGE NEGUS: Let me put a scenario to you - it is difficult to summarise in Sudan - that's certainly the case. But is it true, because of the amount of oil that China buys from the Sudanese Government, and the fact that China is involved in producing oil and petroleum in Sudan themselves - does that then contribute to arms sales from China which contribute to the conflict and the genocide and the killing in Darfur - and therefore China's contribution is negative and is causing a lot of strife, a lot of trouble, a lot of death?

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: I don't think so and I can't agree with the rationale of that. We do recognise that we do have some oil interests there in Sudan.

GEORGE NEGUS: 75%-80% of their oil is your oil. Yeah. Ambassador, is China the biggest purchaser of Sudanese oil?

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: I think so personally, I think so, China. But how can you, you know, link them with the so-called genocide or humanitarian crisis or war or bloody conflicts in the region with the purchase of oil?

GEORGE NEGUS: But am I wrong in presuming that the money the Sudanese Government gets from China by your purchase of oil is then used in turn to buy arms, which contributes to the conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead?

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: You know, the Government of Sudan actually has claimed by itself that it is number three biggest conventional arms or ammunitions producer there in Africa, immediately after Egypt and South Africa, so they can produce themselves.

GEORGE NEGUS: But you do sell arms?

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: We do, we do, but from China we are a responsible government. We have never violated the United Nations Security Council's resolution on arms embargos on Darfur.

GEORGE NEGUS: Could I ask you this question - do you believe that the President of Sudan has contributed to the genocide and the suffering and the deaths?

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: Well, I do not like to use the term genocide because I know not every country, even many of the major Western countries, governments do not use the term genocide.

GEORGE NEGUS: What term would you use?

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: I think there are real humanitarian crisis, the Government of Sudan is part of the problem, should be responsible for what is happening in Darfur because they have not handled the issue properly, but I don’t know whether it constitutes the full reason for present..

GEORGE NEGUS: So you are saying that we are wrong if we see China acting out of self interest.

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: I think that is very normal, justifiable and open for mutual benefit kind of interest for both China, the government of Sudan and the people of Sudan. Just try to remove the government cannot solve the problem. So that is that China is advocating for a kind of holistic approach to solve the problem.

GEORGE NEGUS: The most cynical in the West would say "Why should we believe you. Can we trust China?"

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: I think, I think for the Western world, I think they need to more or less change, fix the mentality. I think they need to regard China as an equal partner.

GEORGE NEGUS: I guess the post-Olympic slogan is "more openness".

AMBASSADOR LUI GUIJIN: I think we are doing that. This year happens to be 30 years of China opens its door to the outside world. Yes, so we have achieved a lot and we cannot be satisfied over that because to close the door does not fall in the interests of China and the Chinese people.

GEORGE NEGUS: Thank you. Good to talk to you.


GEORGE NEGUS: You have to admit, whether they're arguing their case for why it's OK to gag the media or genocide in Darfur, they spin a pretty good line. If you asked me, they'd have to be a pretty good chance for at least a bronze medal for hair-splitting.