By Jonathan Watts, March 2008
“I confess. I have attempted to commit journalism in violation of the Chinese government’s rules and regulations. I understand that the authorities would not like me to report what I have seen and heard today to the outside world.”
This is a fairly typical extract from a correspondent’s self-criticism – the usually hand-scrawled, semantically convoluted and anything but penitent letters that foreign journalists were – until recently at least – obliged to write in return for their freedom if they are caught conducting unauthorised interviews or visits.
I was obliged to sign my most recent self-criticism in March 2006 after I was detained by police in Yunfu, Guangdong Province, for talking to some elderly villagers engaged in a land dispute (1). As usual, the experience was unpleasant, humiliating and glaringly at odds with the image of a modern, open, international country that China is trying to project to the outside world.
It was not my first detention. Before I came to China in 2003, I had never had any serious trouble with the authorities in a 13-year career covering a dozen countries – even including North Korea and Burma. But since I moved to Beijing in 2003, the police have detained me three times for, variously, talking to Tibetan activists in Beijing (2), the widows of a mining accident in Shaanxi (3), and the peasants in Guangdong that I mentioned above. I have been turned away by police three times (all in March 2008, while I was trying to visit Tibetan areas that had reportedly been experiencing unrest). They have also confiscated my press card once, state security agents have interrogated at least one of my assistants and local officials and their hired thugs have frequently harassed and sometimes beaten my sources.
There have been four occasions when it has been clear that my phone conversations or emails are monitored. And the behaviour of my internet provider – far slower and more erratic than in other countries, particularly when I used sensitive words – makes me suspect that my online research is being disrupted.
There is nothing unusual about this. In China, such treatment and the paranoia that comes with it is considered part of the territory. There are other cultural, linguistic and ideological issues that affect coverage, but I believe the government’s controls on foreign journalists have one of the biggest and most negative impact on the overseas image of the country.
My experience of one detention per year is not at all untypical for a foreign journalist in China. But there have also been signs of improvement in the reporting environment. Under temporary Olympic regulations introduced in January 2007, foreign journalists no longer need to get advance permission from provincial authorities for every interview and visit outside Beijing.
Instead, Article 6 of the new rulebook states: “To interview organizations or individuals in China, foreign journalists need only to obtain prior consent.” Foreign reporters need to learn this by heart.
Whenever there is a “misunderstanding” with the police, it is worth reciting these important words and note that they were approved by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. But even that doesn’t always work.
The new rules will run alongside the old, which date to 1990 and are more restrictive. But in the event of any clash between the two, the new regulations issued by the State Council are supposed to take precedence. Exactly how this will work in practice has been the subject of some confusion. Although the wording of the new rules suggests they might apply to Olympic-related matters only, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said they would be liberally interpreted to cover all topics, including politics and social issues.
In practice, however, the government continues to strictly control the activities of foreign reporters. In the first year after the Olympic regulations were introduced, the FCCC recorded more than 180 cases of interference, including detentions of foreign journalists, harassment of sources and being turned away from stories. In some cases, problems were resolved by phone calls to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing (remember to take the emergency number with you on reporting trips), but more often local officials and police ignored the new regulations and did whatever they needed to do to prevent journalists from doing their job.
This was most evident in the days and weeks after the Lhasa riots on 14 March 2008, which spread to protests in at least three provinces neighbouring Tibet. More than 40 foreign journalists were turned away by police when they attempted to enter areas where disturbances were reportedly taking place. Local authorities invoked emergency powers to keep foreigners out. This could not have been done without orders – or least consent – from the central government in Beijing. The new Olympic reporting regulations were simply over-ruled.
Tibet is a special case, say the government. Access is tightly restricted.
Xinjiang, which has a large and often restive Uighur population, is another hotspot, along with Henan villages at the centre of the HIV-contaminated blood harvesting scandal, and most land disputes.
Usually, detentions are a mere inconvenience – albeit a sometimes unsettling one. The interrogators are generally polite and freedom can usually be attained after two to six hours of questioning. Unpleasant as it feels to be taken away by the police, there have – so far – been no long-term repercussions. It is more than five years since a foreign journalist was thrown out of China.
Far worse treatment is meted out to ethnic Chinese journalists. Ng Han Guan, an Associated Press photographer, was clubbed and his camera smashed by plain-clothes security personnel when he took a picture of a colleague being manhandled by police after the Asian Cup final in 2004. BBC producer Bessie Du and cameraman Al Go were strip-searched by police after they visited a riot scene at Dingzhou village in Hebei province last summer.
My biggest concern is for Chinese sources and assistants. It is as if there is a circle of fire around correspondents in China – one that protects the reporter but threatens anyone they come near. At least five of the activists I have interviewed in recent years – the blind, “barefoot lawyer” Chen Guangcheng, the legal rights campaigner Gao Zhisheng, Aids campaigner Hu Jia, petitioner Liu Jie and a land-dispute activist, who asked to remain anonymous, are either in prison, detention or under house arrest as I write.
Assistants are also vulnerable. Zhao Yan, the New York Times researcher, was recently sentenced to prison for three years ostensibly for fraud. His supporters say this charge was a fig leaf to cover the real reason for his punishment: a New York Times story that former president Jiang Zemin was about to step down as head of the military commission. If the government had a stronger case, it did a bad public relations job in presenting it. The trial was held behind closed doors and no witnesses were allowed to testify – all factors which raised suspicions that Zhao’s sentence was retribution rather than justice. He was released early in 2008.
A worrying trend has been the rise in violence meted out against sources by thugs. Last October, the activist Lu Banglie was savagely beaten when he attempted to take one of my Guardian colleagues into Taishi village in Guangdong, the site of a land dispute. When I went back six months later, only a handful of residents were still brave enough to talk. They said there are still 30 guards restricting access to the area. “It’s like there is a black fog enveloping the village,” one man told me. “Everyone feels they could be arrested at any moment. It’s appalling, like a form of terrorism.” We had to break off our interview half-way through because my source saw police officers entering the restaurant where we were talking and he did not want to be caught with a foreign reporter.
Such fears are understandable. The harshest retribution appears to have been meted out to Fu Xiancai – one of the most vocal opponents of the Three Gorges Dam – who was left paralysed by a savage beating after he ignored police warnings not to speak to foreign journalists.
On 8 June, Fu was attacked by unknown assailants on his way home from the Zigui public security bureau in Hubei Province, where he had been interrogated about an interview he granted with reporters from the German channel ARD. Relatives say the blow broke his neck, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down but able to speak. According to Human Rights in China, Fu has been repeatedly warned by police and local officials that he would be severely punished for talking to foreign journalists. A police investigation into the incident concluded that he broke his neck in a fall down a steep slope.
Many activists appeal to the international media because domestic news organisations are so tightly censored. But the local police chief, Wang Xiankui, warned Fu last May that this was illegal. In the year since, Fu has been beaten by thugs using police batons, had his home broken into and received numerous death threats. “We have no doubt that this incident was partly a revenge for Mr Fu Xiancai ‘s statement on German Television; also, because he had been called a “traitor” by local authorities for having talked to foreign media,” the director general of ARD, Jobst Plog, wrote in a letter to the Chinese ambassador in Berlin. He called on the government to ensure that “Chinese citizens do not have to fear for their health or life in the future”, just because they make a factual statement to the foreign media.
The same month, police pressed charges against Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist who exposed the Shandong government’s coercive family planning methods to the central government and foreign media.
After being kept under illegal house arrest for almost a year, Chen was sentenced in 2006 to three years and four months in prison for “inciting a mob to disrupt traffic.” His wife Yuan Weijing and lawyers were detained by police or placed under house arrest during his trial.
I recently discovered that several of the land protestors I spoke to in Guangdong were also jailed in June. It may have nothing to do with me – they had been tussling with the authorities for more than a year and The Guardian took great precautions to keep their identities concealed in the published story – but there is a niggling worry in the back of my mind that the local police may have found out about our interviews and used it against them.
The story is not all dark. At a central government level, I have never got into trouble as a result of a detention by the local authorities. Indeed sometimes it feels like Beijing is grateful for the reports from the provinces gleaned by foreign correspondents, who can provide an alternative and unsanitised view of events. I have no strong proof of this, but academics and officials have praised – though always off-record – the contribution made by the foreign media in helping to expose the Henan HIV-Aids scandal, mine disaster cover-ups, bird-flu outbreaks and corruption and pollution scandals. I have never received an official complaint.
As relations between the foreign media and the central authorities thaw, there should be less suspicion that we are trying to destabilise the government or demonize China, and more understanding that we are trying to seek out injustices that often remain hidden in a political and legal system that gives local cadres too much power and too little accountability. In many cases, we help to bring local officials to task for failing to live up to the standards set at a national level.
In a coincidence of interests, this means we sometimes inadvertently act on behalf of the central authorities. Neither side is likely to feel comfortable acknowledging this situation. But it happens and as a result the correspondent is not just a middleman between two countries, but between the centre and the region. This means extra pressure, extra responsibility and potentially bigger results. That is one of the biggest reasons why it is so satisfying to work in China as a correspondent.
From the comments I read on the web and in emails, it seems some people believe there is a homogeneous western media that is intent on vilifying China. In an interview with a Chinese radio station, the first question I was asked – only partly in jest – was, “Why do foreign reporters hate China so much?” At a lecture I gave at a Beijing university, students politely lambasted me – and by association all other foreign journalists – for painting too negative a picture of China. “Why,” asked one questioner, “do you keep writing about the Tiananmen Square incident and the Cultural Revolution? The past is the past. China has changed. It is time to move on.”
He had a point. The world’s most populous nation has been transformed in many ways since the dark days of Mao Zedong and the slaughter of civilians by the People’s Liberation Army in1989. But the same could also be said of Japan since the Second World War, and many of the students had a very different view about the value of history when it came to the atrocities committed by their neighbour more than half a century ago. “Why,” asked another questioner, referring to the massacre in Nanjing in 1937 and the imperial army’s use of sex slaves, “can’t Japan face up to the past?”
The biggest criticism has come from the blogosphere – the growth of which has been perhaps the biggest development during my three years in China. On one hand, blogs are a new source of tips for stories. One of the best is probably ESWN.com, whose author Roland Soong uses his formidable translation skills to provide a bridge between the Chinese media and the English-speaking world. More importantly – and sometimes more painfully – bloggers are also eager to serve as watchdogs on journalists. Although the process is still rather scrappy, the blogosphere is now an arena where correspondents can be publicly held to account. While this is a welcome development in terms of accountability, transparency and public discourse, there have also been hate campaigns instigated by online mobs. In the aftermath of the Tibet unrest in March 2008, a campaign against CNN and other foreign media organisations led to countless hate mails and threatening phone calls.
Nonetheless, China is a great story to cover. One of the best parts of the job is the opportunity to travel around this vast, diverse, fast-changing country. It contrasts sharply in that respect with my previous post in Japan. Even the footware is different. Japan was a beat for reporters with polished shoes – necessary for walking the corridors of power in the Nagatacho political district, shareholders’ meetings in the Otemachi business district or – once in a blue moon – an audience with the emperor at the Imperial Palace. China, on the other hand, is a news beat that requires sturdy boots, which soon get covered in mud, sand and loess from peasant farms, desert roads and cave dwellings.
Because the country is so large and it is still so hard to get access to senior officials – let alone an audience with President Hu Jintao – the story must be covered bottom-up rather than top-down.
This makes it far more interesting for a reporter, though the workload is greater. This is perhaps because the issues in China feel far more extreme in scale and consequence – and not only because China’s population is 10 times bigger. One of the big stories during my time in Tokyo was a quarter-percent rise in the interest rate, which – quite understandably – had people chattering for months. In China, however, there are so many life-or-death stories that it is impossible to cover them all. For the aggrieved, journalists’ bureaus become a second port-of-call after the petition office – but there is a limit to how many land dispute pieces the editors back home are willing to run.
But when you do get a story, it is often from the source – and sometimes, even completely original. Because China is so vast and still so sparsely covered, there is real chance here to dig up material that is at least unique in the English media and sometimes – because of censorship – a real scoop even in China. When you want to explore major trends – the development of the west, urbanisation, the dire condition of China’s waterways – you can head into the provinces and find the sort of gripping narratives and spectacular backdrops that make writing a pleasure.
China, I suspect, sometimes gets more negative coverage than it deserves because its old system of restricting the activities of foreign correspondents pushes them into taking sides. To do a sensitive story in the provinces, journalists used to have to choose between going officially and getting an overly rosy view of what was happening, or sneaking in without permission and hearing only the views of disgruntled peasants – many of whom have a financial incentive to exaggerate their woes because they want to use the media to seek compensation. The problem was that there was very little middle ground – and in many cases that is where the truth is probably to be found.
Forced to choose, most journalists often gave the benefit of the doubt to the little guy up against the system. With the domestic media often muzzled and the courts in the pocket of local officials, there was no other outlet for the voices of the oppressed. I try to get the official view too by calling the relevant government departments, but the spokesman’s system – despite a much heralded reform and expansion in 2003 – is not very helpful. Phones often ring unanswered or are quickly hung up.
Faxes with questions and official chops are usually requested. If you get a short answer within a week, you are lucky. If local governments used their “waiban” (foreign affairs office) resources to improve the spokesman’s system rather than restricting visits, they would get a much better return on their tax money.
The Olympics will change things. As I write in March 2008, it is too early to judge in terms of the qualitative difference in the reporting environment, but in terms of the quantity of journalists there has already been a transformation. In 2002, there were 199 resident foreign media organizations and 353 foreign journalists in China. By 2007, that had gone up to 363 resident foreign media organizations and 760 foreign journalists.
For the Olympics, the government expects 21,500 accredited foreign journalists and 5,000 to 10,000 unaccredited journalists in addition to resident correspondents. This has been good news for the Foreign Correspondents Club, which almost doubled its membership to 365 in the two years up to 2007.
China also has an Olympic promise to live up to. “We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China,” said Wang Wei, secretary-general of the Beijing Olympic Games bid committee, in lobbying for the right to host the event. “We are confident that the Games coming to China not only promotes our economy but also enhances all social conditions, including education, health, and human rights.”
The new Olympic reporting regulations are a step forward. But – even without emergencies like Tibet – there are still huge restrictions. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are 30 reporters in Chinese prisons – the highest number in the world. Reporters without Borders adds 60 cyber-dissidents to this list. In recent years, we have witnessed the jailing of Beijing-based documentary filmmaker Wu Hao, reporters Yang Xiaoqing and Li Yuanlong, the firing of Freezing Point editor Li Datong (18) and the closure of countless blogs and bulletin boards.
Chinese journalists sometimes provide information, but they also face dangers. Every week the propaganda departments of the state and provincial governments issue a list of prohibited stories. Journalists usually do not find out until their copy – often written and researched at considerable personal risk – is spiked. On two occasions, I have received tip offs from frustrated Chinese reporters, who were unwilling to comply with official cover-ups and so passed on their stories to an outsider. Many say they are now forbidden to give information to foreign reporters. Suspicion towards the overseas media lingers.
But Beijing – and in particularly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – has become far more sophisticated in their attempt to shape global images of China. Restrictions on where journalists live and set up offices have been lifted. We can freely choose our assistants, whereas in the past all appointments had to be made through the Diplomatic Service Bureau. Most tellingly, no foreign reporter has been expelled for at least eight years. These are gains, but surely things that reporters in most other major countries take for granted.
It may be no coincidence that the tone of coverage has also undergone a change – at least that is the impression of the government. On June 24 2006, Wang Guoqing, deputy chief of the State Council Information Office, announced that Western reporting of China had taken a turn for the better. According to his office’s analysis of 243 articles in the previous year from “mainstream” Western media, only 34 percent were deemed “prejudiced”. The rest were judged balanced or impartial. By comparison, in the 1990s, 60-70 percent of Western articles were deemed negative.
With a country this big, this complex and this fast-moving, there can never be unanimity of perceptions. Never have I felt more stress, or more satisfaction, than in the past five years. China is categorised as a hardship posting. But it is also a privilege to watch the development of this nation. Surely there is no more compelling story that a correspondent can cover without a flak jacket.