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  • Working With Assistants

    Local assistants, translators, fixers and/or drivers may feel conflicted between loyalty to their country and loyalty to you. Do not ask them to choose.

    Being Responsible

    Authorities in China may try to intimidate assistants by threatening to speak to their families about what they are doing, accusing them of being unpatriotic or insinuating that they may lose their job. They may insist on regular meetings with your assistants to get information on your reporting plans. This does not necessarily mean your assistants are betraying you — they probably have no choice about attending. But you should take this into consideration when discussing sensitive coverage plans.

    Your Chinese assistant may get into trouble any time there is a conflict with local authorities who do not like the fact that a foreign correspondent is conducting an interview or doing other forms of reporting. Your assistant/translator may be pressured by authorities or even detained. Remember they are more at risk than you. Foreign correspondents are usually protected by their nationality.

    Assistants of some news bureaus in China are – on a more or less regular basis – “invited” by persons from the public security or state security apparatuses to meet in a bar, cafe or other public place.

    There they are asked to report on the activities in the news office and on the topics their correspondent(s) cover.

    Foreign correspondents should take this practice into consideration when they employ Chinese assistants. The foreign journalist should consider it his or her responsibility to consider the welfare of their local assistants — and to try not to put them in compromising situations which could be risky for both employee and employer.

    Minimizing Risks To Assistants

    Never ask your assistants to do something that is considered illegal. You might not be able to help if they run into problems.

    Some assistants may tell you that they have been asked to meet with public security or state security officials. Others do not feel safe or confident enough to admit to this. Such disclosure should be their choice. Do not pressure your assistants to talk about such meetings with you. You should encourage them not to lie, and not to try to hide your activities from security agents, because such efforts often backfire and cause more problems than full disclosure. Remember, Chinese citizens have to stay in China and you don’t.

    There are many ways for Chinese authorities to ascertain what you are up to – think of yourself as someone whose life is remarkably transparent.

    If you plan to do a sensitive story, discuss risks in advance, and don’t force your Chinese colleagues into situations they are uncomfortable with. Do not require them to hide information on your behalf.

    If your Chinese language skills allow, avoid taking assistants or translators on the most sensitive stories. If you do take them, agree on a contingency plan should you be detained. Another option is to go to trouble spots alone, leaving your assistant behind, but prepared to interpret interviews by mobile phone.

    If you encounter interference from police or other authorities while you are on a reporting trip, try not to become separated from your assistant. If you are separated, your assistant may be treated very roughly. Insist on her/his presence by your side. (“I need a translator” etc.). If you don’t succeed, keep telling the authorities that the assistant is working on your behalf, that everything that he/she has been doing is because you told him/her to do so.

    Bridging The Culture Gap

    The FCCC suggests foreign correspondents talk to their local assistant or translator openly about the pressures local employees may face – up front and right from the start. When employing a new assistant who does not have prior experience working with foreign media, the correspondent should also make clear what the job of a reporter entails. For example:

    • Gathering news is not “interfering with the domestic affairs of China” or “espionage” but normal reporting which takes place in almost every country of the world. You want to find and tell the truth. Not more, not less.
    • Foreign correspondents work for their respective media organizations, not for their countries’ governments. They are not government agents or employees. They are expected to be loyal only to their own conscience and to their news organizations.
    • Foreign correspondents are not propaganda tools either for their own countries’ governments or for the Chinese government.
    • Journalists all over the world have a duty to protect the people who confide in them – which means a duty to protect their sources. This is holds true in China as elsewhere: Media should try to ensure that nobody gets in trouble for talking with foreign correspondents or their local assistants.

    Bureaucracy, Contracts and Registration

    If you employ assistants on a regular and/or long-term basis, you’ll need to ensure they have health and social insurance and that they pay taxes. If you don’t sign a labor contract with your assistant, you are in violation of Chinese law. Authorities have also specified special considerations for foreign media employing local assistants/translators

    In earlier times it was impossible to employ an assistant without the permission of the Diplomatic Services Bureau (DSB), which is an arm of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. More recently, the regulations have eased and you can recruit and hire assistants on your own.

    However, the DSB will pressure you to register your assistant with the DSB. In return the assistant receives an identity card which can be very helpful. If you don’t register your assistant, he/she will not have access to government press conferences, to the annual National People’s Congress (or parliament) sessions which are open to media, or to other official events.

    If you register your assistant on a long-term basis you have to pay a monthly fee. The DSB has tried to get foreign correspondents to sign contracts that make the DSB responsible for all social security issues, taxes etc. related to your assistants. However this can be quite expensive for your assistant and for you.

    If you sign a labor contract with the DSB, technically you are not the only employer of your assistant – the DSB becomes the employer – and you’ll pay a fee to the DSB. Some foreign correspondents have found many aspects of such contracts to be negotiable, so when in doubt consult your organization’s legal counsel on how to proceed.

    Each foreign correspondent has to work out his/her own specific work agreements with assistants, especially when it comes to the issue of DSB registration, the above-mentioned social security issues, bonuses, overtime, and details such as possible per diem payments while traveling, etc. (Under the old system, for example, DSB-provided assistants were entitled to a year-end bonus equivalent to a month’s salary — often called the “thirteenth month’s bonus” — and even a “clothing allowance”. The practice persists in some cases but not usually for recent hires.)