A documentary to be screened tomorrow on Maori Television has already enjoyed more attention than it probably deserves. Called 10 Conditions of Love, it is concerned with a movement for autonomy and religious freedom for the Muslim Uighur people of Xinjiang, a remote Central Asian desert ruled by China. It is not a subject that would have been particularly arresting were it not for the fact that the Chinese Embassy in Wellington asked Maori Television not to screen it.
Quite rightly, the channel refused the embassy's request and every opportunity was taken to use it for the programme's promotion. Producer John Lewis said, "We have been astonished by the clumsiness of the Chinese response and are deeply grateful for the stupendous publicity we have received".
When will authoritarian states learn how to put their points of view to liberal democracies? China's attempt to suppress the film is as futile as Saudi Arabia's bid to stop screenings of Death of a Princess some years ago, or China's attempt to remove the Uighur documentary from the Melbourne International Film Festival a few weeks ago.
That attempt has aroused worldwide interest in it.
No doubt the documentary is one-sided. It focuses on the life of an activist, Rebiya Kadeer, who spent six years in a Chinese prison and was released into exile in the United States in 2005. She must have approved of her portrayal by Australian director Jeff Daniels because she came to Melbourne for the festival screening.
The embassy says the film distorts facts about China's treatment of ethnic minorities. No doubt it does; film-makers are notoriously inclined to err on the side of dramatic licence when dull facts dispute their desired story. But to try to suppress a film on that account is worse than useless in a free society, guaranteeing a greater audience.
The story of an obscure independence movement and its leading activists should be told. The most effective response for the embassy is to be prepared for interviews the broadcast might invite. It is after the screening, not before, that China can put forward any facts and explanations that might discredit the film or at least put its contents in a different perspective.
But it would need to have some convincing evidence for its claims that the territory is being terrorised by agents of al Qaeda and that ethnic riots that erupted last month between the Uighurs and Han Chinese were orchestrated by Kadeer from her new home in Fairfax, Virginia.
Beijing has produced its own documentary to make those claims, which the embassy wants Maori Television to show. That is not an effective response. Even if the channel agrees to put it on, a full-length official production is unlikely to hold an audience.
There are no short-cuts to credibility for countries such as China. If they want the rest of the world to have a fair and balanced view of their events, they need to allow free and independent reporting of their affairs. Even then, the Chinese authorities would have to tolerate a high degree of scepticism, as they did last year when they allowed some Western reporters to witness Tibetan unrest. It takes sustained openness to live down a heritage of information control.
Meanwhile, audiences in free countries need to remember a rebel view can be as factually jaundiced as that of the regime it resists. The Turkic-speaking Muslims under Chinese rule in Central Asia barely registered on the world news radar until the riots last month. An Australian festival film would have advanced their cause no more than marginally if the Chinese had not tried to stop it. When will they learn?