An American friend who has been working in public relations in China for many years recently surprised me when he said that China no longer cared about the negative news being reported by the foreign media.
Thinking he meant that the government had somehow suddenly adopted a more mature understanding of the role of the media in China, I replied, a bit hesitant, “That’s great.”
“No, it’s not,” he responded.
I thought about this for a few seconds and then realized what he meant. China has become so self-confident that it no longer cares what the world thinks of it. As a result, relations between government and the international media are worsening, a point the Communist Party of China (CPC) is either refusing to admit or is ignoring.
Of course, the Party is very concerned about what people in China think. The leaders know that if they allow the domestic media to freely report the excesses, mistakes, abuses, and failings of the Party, that could seriously undermine CPC rule. And this is why we will not see any improvement in domestic freedom of expression. As one British diplomat once said to me, “The Communist Party is not in the business of putting itself out of business.”
Reporting by the foreign media is more an embarrassment than a threat to the regime. But the degree to which the Party has gone to obstruct the work of foreign journalists is a sign that it also cares about its international image—albeit not enough to stop some of its most egregious abuses against its own citizens.
It’s my belief that the human rights situation is now the worst it has been in the more than 15 years that I’ve been based in China. I attribute this to the Party’s belief that it is now strong enough to weather all criticisms—or possibly its belief that few people today will dare criticize it. The conventional wisdom is that everyone needs China too much to let a few human rights abuses get in the way of business.
Concerning the restrictions on international media working in China, improvements have been minimal. The only major change came in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when the government lifted the rule that required foreign journalists to obtain permission from local foreign affairs offices before making any reporting trips outside of their bases, normally Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.
Under the old policy, when a foreign journalist went on a reporting trip to another city, town, or village, he would be saddled with a full-time paid minder who accompanied him to interviews and took notes during the meetings, a practice that guaranteed that interviewees were not going to say anything unexpected. Traveling in Hunan in the early 1990s, I once managed to make my way across a busy country market road, leaving my minder stuck on the other side. As I spat out a few harmless questions to some farmers selling in the market, my minder stood nervously in the middle of the road, frantically trying to navigate around the horse carts that blocked his path.
Journalists new to China soon discovered that such reporting trips were a waste of time, and that requests for permission were often ignored or refused. And so they soon started abiding by a popular Chinese adage that says it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.
This meant “illegal” reporting trips, in which foreign journalists traveled stealthily, hoping not to get caught. The problem—which still exists today—is that all jour- nalists have J visas stamped in their passports, a sort of Scarlet Letter that tells everyone the holder is a journalist. It’s common when checking into hotels today to hear the staff whisper the word jizhe, or journalist. The police soon learn that a journalist is in town.
But even if one were to avoid the attention of the police, there is always the danger that a journalist may be noticed by local officials, especially when reporting in out-of-the-way areas where foreigners stand out. In such cases, notes might be confiscated (some wise journalists kept second notebooks with fake jottings) and camera cards erased (photographers soon became adept at quickly switching cards).
How effective are the new rules? To be fair, in some cases when local officials or police interfered in the work of a foreign journalist, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did intercede. But in many cases, they did not, and maybe they even ignored instances when journalists’ rights were abused.
The government says that the foreign media is biased, and there recently has been a good deal of talk about the government spending a huge amount of money to get the “true” story out to the international community. There’s talk of international satellite broadcasts and more English-language publications to reach overseas readers and “set the record straight.”
But in essence, the Party only wants its voice heard. It has no interest in allowing the Chinese masses to tell their story, and it often blocks attempts by the media to get the truth to the people.
Chinese citizens are prohibited from working as journalists for the international media. This prohibition significantly prevents them from having an opportunity to play a role in shaping reporting about China. News assistants are often intimidated by spooky security agents who ask them to meet at McDonald’s, where the agents pepper them with questions about their foreign bosses. And these news assistants are warned not to take any part in journalistic work, although what this includes is never clearly stated.
The government says the foreign media distorts news about Tibet, arguing that Tibetans widely support Chinese policy there. But at the same time it prevents international journalists from going there. Although the new rules say we can travel wherever we want as long as someone has agreed to accept an interview, Tibet was never made open to visits and no explanation has been given for this. A journalist can apply for special permission to go to Tibet, but such requests are rarely approved. There are the occasional government-organized trips, during which minders closely monitor the group—often with disastrous results. When one such delegation visited Lhasa after the outbreak of violence in 2008, government media handlers were shocked when monks besieged the group crying about injustices.
Since 2008, even areas inhabited by Tibetans outside Tibet proper have sometimes been put off-limits to foreign reporters. When I attempted to visit the Labrang Monastery in Gansu Province during the Tibetan New Year in 2009, police roadblocks prevented me from getting there.
And when I reported later in the year on farmers looking for kidnapped sons believed to be working in illegal brick kilns, known locally as the Black Kilns, police surrounded me and a Chinese journalist colleague and tried to prevent us from leaving the area, repeatedly grabbing the wrist of my reporter friend.
When I traveled to Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in February this year, police showed up at my hotel within 15 minutes of my checking in to ask for my special permit from Urumqi, the capital of the troubled region. This was apparently a new rule instituted after riots broke out in July 2009. When I told the police that I did not need a permit under the new regulations, they smiled and said, “We have our own rules.” While the police were kind and allowed me and a photographer colleague to stay in the city as “tourists” for three days, we were prevented from reporting by police who accompanied us wherever we went for the entire period. On the third day they escorted us to the train station and sent us on our way.
Foreign journalists are often berated by Chinese “intellectuals” for being anti-Chinese and for not understanding the country, but these are often the same people who routinely refuse to be interviewed, often out of fear of getting in trouble.
A few years ago when I wrote a long article for Newsweek on China’s questionable statistics, I attempted to get an interview with the National Statistics Bureau. Two months went by, with numerous follow-ups, but the bureau never bothered to respond. The day after the story was published, they sent us a seven-page rebuttal. If there were mistakes in the story, perhaps I would not have made them had the authorities granted me a meeting.
While writing about the declining supply of fish in coastal waters around China, the Fisheries Bureau flat out turned down my request for an interview, without giving any reason. I found a staff member who agreed to speak with me off the record. He denied there was a decline, but told me the government was concerned and so was taking measures to forestall a problem, including destroying old fishing boats and shortening the fishing season, among other things. Without permission to travel, I “illegally” visited several coastal cities to talk to fishermen. They confirmed my suspicion that the fish supply was declining, saying they had not seen some species in seven years. But they also told me of government measures to deal with the issue.
As a result of that official breaking the rules, my illegal visit to coastal areas, and the comments of the fishermen, I was able to write a more objective and accurate story—not because of the government, but in spite of it.
Meanwhile, relations between the foreign media and the government are going from bad to worse.
Last December, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs delayed the approval of visa renewals for several weeks for foreign journalists who were seen to have reported on too many sensitive issues. The group included the former president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, who apparently was being punished because the Club had spoken out on several issues regarding the media in China. The message was clear—if you continue to do such reports, we can kick you out of here.
In recent months, foreign journalists have become a target of cyber attackers, adding to the frustrations of working in China. In March, New York Times Beijing correspondent Andrew Jacobs wrote an article on how his computer had been hacked and e-mails redirected to an unknown e-mail address. Jacobs said that scores of foreign reporters in China have discovered intrusions into their e-mail accounts. The article also alluded to tapped telephones, bugged offices, and other forms of officially-sanctioned spying.1
In another incident earlier this year, foreign news organizations received phishing e-mails; those who opened them unknowingly installed spyware in their computers that enabled hackers to gain remote and full control of their computers. Tech experts said that while the malware could not be traced back to the Chinese government, the e-mail recipients were Chinese news assistants, whose e-mail addresses are not widely known to the public, but are known to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
When will things improve? Not for a long while. As far as the Chinese government is concerned, it has no problem. When the bureau chief of a foreign news organization complained to an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that some of its new policies were a big step backward, the official got visibly angry.
It’s difficult to feel optimistic about the short-term future. As China perceives itself to be stronger, and as more of the world sees it as a force to be reckoned with, the Party will only become more and more confident and less and less concerned about what anyone else thinks. In the meantime, conflicts between the media and the government can only rapidly increase.
1. Andrew Jacobs, “Journalists’ E-Mails Hacked in China,” The New York Times, March 30, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/31/world/asia/31china.html. ^