The Correspondents’ Dilemma?

    China positioned the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games as the nation’s grand re-introduction to the international community—and to cover the event appropriately, foreign correspondents in China enjoyed eased restrictions and unencumbered coverage that suggested a liberalization for foreign media in  China. After the curtains of the Olympics closing ceremony lowered, however, Chinese officials have reversed their open stance towards foreign correspondents, enforcing regulations more stringently, heightening bureaucratic obstacles, and increasing intimidation in order to curtail reporting counter to party rhetoric. For the first time since 1998, China began expelling foreign journalists and forbidding visa renewals and re-entry, beginning with Melissa Chan from Al-Jazeera in 2012 and Paul Mooney of Reuters the subsequent year. Following Xi Jinping’s ascension to power in 2013, as reported by PEN America, restrictions on foreign journalists markedly increased. Additionally, there was speculation following an announcement from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology that online foreign media would require explicit government approval, spurring concern from political leaders and news organizations worldwide.

   The People’s Republic of China has always been wary of foreign media. Following the formation of the state, foreign correspondents were closely monitored by escorting government officials and forced to live in military housing. While mandatory housing policies are no longer enforced and correspondents today are able to travel outside of Beijing without government approval, foreign correspondents who step out of line still face punishment. These include increased bureaucratic pressure through the threat of withheld visas or other necessary traveling permits, as well as intimidation. , Such incidents have increased since the transition to Xi’s administration. So precisely what is allowed? The Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and press, but censorship is practiced regularly in the name of protecting state secrets—a vaguely defined concept that allows for flexible selection of censored materials by the Central Propaganda Department. Some foreign media and journalism are openly mistrusted and discredited by state-controlled domestic media outlets.

   Foreign correspondents face entry barriers that verge on censorship. They include requiring foreign journalists to first obtain permission to work in the country. This allows for China to strictly control the inflow of journalists, barring entrance to writers with portfolios and past reporting, not to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) liking. Journalists who are allowed entry must take great pains to avoid bureaucratic intimidation and detention, engaging in practices akin to counter-surveillance in order to protect evidence, notes, and sources. Works deemed too inflammatory or illegal by the CCP can result in suspension and expulsion from the country. Censorship may also extend to the parent media organization in order to induce self-censorship practices, as has become the norm for the vast majority of Chinese-produced news and blogs. This might have been the case for Bloomberg journalist Michael Forsythe, who reported on China beginning in 2000. Forsythe’s articles often covered the large financial holdings and corrupt dealings of notable Chinese officials and citizens. Forsythe’s superior, Matthew Winkler, was overheard by a co-worker stating, “If we run the story, we’ll be kicked out of China,” as first reported by the Telegraph. Winkler has since refuted that controversial stories were scrapped and has not responded to media inquiries regarding the matter. Though Bloomberg has denied self-censorship practices, the reality of the tightrope that foreign media faces in order to operate in China is evident. Despite allegedly tightly controlling content, Bloomberg’s compliance with CCP censorship failed to bring any advantages when working with the government. Beyond moderating content, correspondents may also control the timing of publication of their work to avoid visa complications. Since journalists must renew their visas annually, they are vulnerable to the whims of CCP bureaucracy and sometimes opt to publish contentious material after the visa renewal deadlines in December to avoid additional controversy that may impact visa renewal for the upcoming year.

   When a controversial article is published, CCP censors will often punish the writer individually. Chris Buckley, a correspondent for the New York Times in 2012, had worked in China for over a dozen years. He had most recently assisted associate David Barboza in reporting on the family fortune of former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. The article detailed a network of assets held by Wen’s family valued at over $2.7 billion, seemingly accrued within a single generation through nepotistic advantages and government awards. The exposé provoked the Chinese foreign ministry to publicly decry the New York Times and block the publication’s website, subsequently denying visa renewals and journalist replacements. Provocative journalists’ nerves are tested with visa expiries, with some like Buckley forced out of the country as their visas expire, or others such as Buckley’s superior, Hannah Beech, only obtaining a renewal of a visa the day of expiry. Visa renewal procedures typically last two months.

   In China, censorship is thought a necessary tool to curb damaging influence and lies—the same logic used in the construction of the Great Firewall. However, the Great Firewall is relatively easy to circumvent for determined users, and the evolving nature of content and technology means that the massive bureaus tasked with monitoring are constantly falling behind internet users. Foreign correspondents and media organizations arguably find it less difficult to circumvent censors’ bureaucratic efforts, with greater resources and protections than Chinese nationals. Organizations with banned sites have articles reprinted and widely replicated in the Chinese blogosphere by virtue of an adept internet community intent on increasing domestic consumption of and access to information. Reporters that have taken to social media have amassed followings on Weibo and microblogs that are more difficult for the CCP to monitor. Foreign media also can act as a shield for Chinese media—translations of foreign correspondents’ provoking investigations can be translated and reprinted and information can be sent from locals to foreign media with much less fear of being reported. While journalists increasingly risk repression and government ire, the tools to circumvent and independently report have increased in tandem.

   No journalists have been expelled through visa manipulation since 2013. China’s flirtation with kicking out journalists has most likely been deemed too visible. However, 2013, the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China (FCCC) reported that over eighty percent of surveyed journalists faced similar or worsening conditions. Beyond bureaucratic difficulties, foreign correspondents have faced more severe consequences. Journalists that write more sensitive articles can be forced to sign confessions of guilt and retractions, face detention, harassment, and arrest — every consequence is compounded for domestic assistants or sources. These practices and guidelines, codified by the State Council in 1990, have seen recent expansions.  News organizations’ sites have been banned from Chinese cyberspace, following the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s aforementioned new policy toward foreign-owned companies. Affected foreign media include Bloomberg, the Independent, Le Monde, Reuters, and the New York Times.

   To date, the Chinese government has received only verbal admonishments from foreign politicians regarding censorship of foreign correspondents. As a diplomatic last resort, states have the ability to reciprocally deny access to Chinese journalists from state media organizations abroad—but many countries, just like news organizations in China, have been reluctant to burn bridges in order to protect individual journalists, a stance that damages free speech as a whole. As Mooney puts it: “Governments are reluctant to go tit-for-tat on this issue, but when it comes to trade or security, diplomats don’t have their visas renewed and there are consequences—why should the media be held to a higher level?” In this vein, suggestions to protect journalists include outlining terms in trade and security agreements vital to Chinese economic growth, refusing new media visas for replacement correspondents working for Chinese media organizations abroad, or blocking the heads of Chinese media organizations from attending news summits. Most solutions outline consequences and publicity—there is currently no incentive for China to permanently amend policies and practices against foreign correspondents. While major events like the 2008 Summer Olympics and upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing may bring about temporarily increased transparency, it is imperative that new responses are crafted to ensure that foreign correspondents can rely on reduced intimidation and repression. Protection of foreign correspondents is vital and difficult, but not impossible.

Jaylia Yan is a senior at Arizona State University. Contact her at j.yan7@lse.ac.uk.  

 

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