The government does not make public its list of censored or taboo topics, but if you are reporting on the following issues, geographic areas, people or groups, the risk of interference by officials or police will be high and you should assume you will be under observation.
NEW CONDITIONS IN SPRING 2011
Following street demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa and online calls for Chinese protests, the Chinese security forces have become extremely edgy about foreigners reporting in China. Police have declared a new interpretation of China’s reporting rules, essentially to claim that the administrative unit responsible for any public space must approve any reporting. The actual text of the rules says that foreign reporters may interview anyone as the subject and their organization agrees.
Practically, this has meant a great deal of uncertainty, particularly for television crews attempting to do street interviews or vox pops, even on innocuous topics. While some have had no trouble, other crews have been stopped or later called in after being identified while filming in public.
Previously accessible academics in Beijing now also face additional layers of approval from their work units before accepting interviews. Generally, telephone interviews are still relatively easy to arrange.
The new interpretation by police appears to also hold sway in provinces. Foreign reporters should be sure to carry appropriate documentation and where possible arrange interviews in private spaces until it becomes clearer to what extent the police’s new interpretation will hold sway.
Despite statements that foreign journalists are free to travel anywhere in China, Tibetan areas remain a special case, particularly in the wake of the spring 2008 unrest.
All foreigners require travel permits to go to the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and journalists need to apply to the local Foreign Affairs Office for permission or go on a government-organized tour.
Even those who enter China on a tourist visa and travel to Tibet should assume they are being followed and the people they speak with could be at risk.
Tibetan communities in Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces have traditionally been more accessible to foreigners and foreign journalists. However, since the 2008 demonstrations, authorities in those regions have become more sensitive to foreign reporters. Local rules may temporarily close off travel to those regions, particularly at sensitive times — for instance, the Tibetan New Year or Losar, and the mid-March anniversary of the demonstrations.
Please pay special attention to the precautions explained in the “Protecting your sources” and “Reporting and Traveling Safely” sections, given the high stakes that could be involved for your sources as a result of speaking with you. As people outside of the TAR may be less aware of the implications, they may be more willing to offer their names. Keep in mind that people you speak to, or your guide, could be detained or arrested after you leave even for what may seem like relatively weak statements of discontent with or objection to Chinese rule.
Many of the same issues apply in Xinjiang as in Tibet, particularly after the Urumqi riots of July 2009.
It is still legally possible for foreigners, including journalists, to travel in Xinjiang without a special permit. However, authorities in Kashgar have put in place “local regulations” requiring an “interview permit,” and many hotels that used to accept foreigners no longer do. Expect a police visit shortly after checking into a hotel in Kashgar.
Also expect to be followed, and anyone you speak with questioned, particularly in Kashgar or ethnically Uighur neighborhoods of Urumqi. Be particularly cautious of endangering Uighur interviewees.
OTHER SENSITIVE PLACES
Other areas that will be hard to get near, and heavily monitored if you do, are: military areas, “sensitive” border areas (e.g. with North Korea or Myanmar), mental hospitals, prisons, labor camps, space exploration facilities, courts dealing with human rights issues.
In recent years, detentions and interference have also been frequent in areas of Henan with a high concentration of HIV-Aids patients, as well as locales experiencing land disputes, particularly over big projects such as the Three Gorges Dam. For more information see FCCC incident reports.
OTHER SENSITIVE ISSUES
- Social problems linked to protests and unrest. This could include disputes over pollution, forced acquisition of land, crackdowns on HIV/AIDS patients or other petitioners with grievances against the government. Local authorities often try to stop foreign journalists from airing their dirty laundry, and confrontations with local thugs can get ugly both for reporters, any drivers you may hire, and the local villagers themselves.
- Corruption cases or critical reports involving senior political leaders or other well-connected people. It is difficult to get information, even for cases that have been through the courts.
- Dissidents. High-profile dissidents probably know the risks and have made a conscious decision about where to draw the line. Some dissidents believe international exposure protects them, but lesser-known dissidents are at greater risk of detention. A number or dissidents, bloggers and rights lawyers have been detained or otherwise punished in the period since the Olympics.
- Politically sensitive areas like censored historic periods (the Cultural Revolution) or elite political maneuvers. There is a risk of detention to sources who provide internal documents. If you are chasing this kind of information make sure there is no paper or electronic trail linking you to the person who will hand it over to you. Evidence provided at the trial of Zhao Yan included a hand-written note apparently from the New York Times office, underlining how broad the reach of the security sources are.
- Falun Gong spiritual group. There is a high risk for FLG followers, and the reliability of some FLG information outlets is questionable. They are also very quick to sue, if they feel they have been unfairly represented.
- Religion. Journalists report widely varying experiences in covering religion. Some report no interference even when reporting on underground churches known to be under watch. Others have experienced interference when reporting on government-recognized bodies.
- North Korean refugees. Be aware that any North Korean refugees you may interview or film, even in safe houses, could be in severe danger of forcible return to North Korea if you are followed or if your notes or film is confiscated. In March 2008, police searched the hotel room of a TV journalist and confiscated tapes from his safe after he had filmed North Korean refugees in Shenyang. Some reporters and activists believe it is safer to interview these refugees once they have reached Thailand, a common staging ground for resettlement in South Korea.