The everyday work of foreign correspondents in China is becoming increasingly difficult. Over the last year, foreign journalists in China have been expelled, harassed, threatened. Recent developments have intensified the situation further.
On March 2, the British ambassador to China, Caroline Wilson, posted an article on the Chinese social media platform WeChat in which she advocated for press freedom and criticized the restrictions on foreign correspondents in China. In response, she was rebuked by the Chinese government, summoned by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, and finds herself now in the midst of a debate about the role of the press in China.
The incident illustrates the growing sensitivity towards criticism of China’s press freedom record by the Chinese government. It comes against the backdrop of numerous cases of press freedom violations in the past year, which have been increasingly directed at foreign correspondents. A recent report, published by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, describes the deteriorating situation.
Expelling and fencing out journalists
Over the last year, numerous foreign correspondents were targeted in “national security investigations”, while the government cancelled press licenses and refused to renew visas. According to the report, this led to “the largest expulsion of foreign journalists since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre more than three decades ago”.
In the first half of 2020 alone, at least 18 journalists working for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal were expelled from China. In September, several reporters from U.S. media organizations were denied renewal of their press credentials, including employees of The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Bloomberg and Getty Images.
The Beijing bureau chief of The New York Times, Steven Lee Myers, who himself was expelled from the country in March 2020, describes a miserable media environment in the report: “Despite what China says about wanting to be open to the world and to show everybody what a vibrant society it is, they clearly restrict reporting of anything that doesn’t adhere to their vision.”
The report highlights in particular constraints that have arisen in the wake of the current pandemic. These included the singling out of foreign journalists as part of health measures, such as mandatory quarantines, or restrictions on entering and leaving the country.
In addition, journalists have often been denied access to regions considered especially sensitive by the Chinese government, such as Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia or Tibet. Reporters who were able to enter these regions were repeatedly followed by police or officials. In some cases, journalists were even asked to delete files from their devices or stopped from talking to locals.
Likewise, numerous cases of legal harassment and convictions against foreign journalists occurred over the last year. These include the arrest last August of Australian journalist Cheng Lei, former TV presenter for the Chinese state media network CGTN. Lei was accused of espionage and leaking state secrets abroad. She was detained for more than six months, before being formally arrested this year in early February.
Following the arrest of Cheng Lei, two other Australian media correspondents working in China fled the country after “threatening behaviour from Chinese officials” and being prevented from leaving for several days. “The fact that the Chinese authorities were willing to put exit bans on two foreign correspondents does show that the old precedents no longer apply,” says one of the two Australian journalists, Michael Smith, in the report. “Before this happened, we assumed that as foreign correspondents, the worst-case scenario was we would be deported or have our visas revoked.”
Moreover, Chinese nationals who work for or provide information to foreign news agencies are under even greater threat by these restrictions, as exemplified by the case of Bloomberg journalist Haze Fan, who was detained in December for “endangering national security”.
Chinese Perspectives on Press Freedom
In a press conference held on March 1, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin commented on the report, stating that it is “based on preconceptions rather than facts in an attempt to sensationalize and scare”. He added that foreign journalists were welcome as long as they act in accordance with Chinese law, and described the report as “fake news fabricated in the name of freedom of the press”.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Chinese state-affiliated news outlet Global Times, reacted to discussions around the British ambassador’s critique of press freedom in China in an opinion piece on Western media coverage of China. Xijin asserted that Western correspondents “have not played an active role in the communication between China and the West”. Criticizing western concepts of press freedom, he claimed that “the overall coverage of China in the Western media reports is biased and even false”.
This reaction is consistent with the government’s expectation of what it considers to be ‘good journalism’, said William Yang, a journalist who covers East Asia for several media outlets. “Good journalism from the government’s point of view means how loyal one is in repeating and reinforcing the government’s message and how willing one is to attack or criticize the government’s opponents”, Yang said. “In China, journalism means usefulness. In the sense of how useful you are in being a political tool for the government. They don’t want to be monitored or under control, they want journalists to support them instead of playing the annoying role of an observer.”
In the next years, access for foreign correspondents to China may become even more tightly linked to geopolitical developments, Yang anticipates. “Press freedom and access for journalists to China will become collateral damage. The Chinese government will use it as a very powerful tool against foreign governments and media”, he predicted. “I also think that it will become increasingly difficult as a journalist based in China to report on sensitive issues or regions within China.”
At the same time, the Chinese government is investing large sums in expanding Chinese media outlets in English for an international audience. These media outlets have often been criticized for acting as propaganda tools of the ruling Chinese Communist Party by reproducing the government’s narratives. They include major Chinese news outlets such as CGNT and People’s Daily, which distribute their content globally via social media and operate studios overseas. Scrutiny of these outlets has grown in some countries, as seen recently with the revocation of CGTN’s broadcast license in the United Kingdom.
Press freedom endangered in Hong Kong
Meanwhile, Chinese restrictions on journalism have also begun to take hold in Hong Kong since the National Security Law came into force there last June. In recent months, numerous pro-democracy activists and media workers have been persecuted under the National Security Law. Perhaps the most prominent case is the arrest of Hong Kong media entrepreneur (Next Media, Apple Daily) and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai last December. He has been charged with alleged foreign conspiracy, fraud and support of the protests. Following several further arrests and an increase in surveillance, reporters in Hong Kong are becoming increasingly wary, fearing legal consequences for their work.
Foreign journalists in Hong Kong, which used to serve as a base for many journalists waiting for visas to enter China, are also facing difficulties.
“This is truly an alarming development”, says Yang. “This means that China’s reach in controlling the media and censorship has been extended. Hong Kong is not the place we used to know. The standards that we used to think of as part of Hong Kong are now being replaced by Chinese standards, paving the way for Hong Kong to become just another Chinese city”.
In a webinar organized by IPI last summer, Hong Kong-based lawyer and analyst Antony Dapiran criticized the implementation of the National Security Act, saying that it “is really about bringing the entire state security apparatus into Hong Kong and setting up the same structure that exists in the mainland”.
At the same time, Beijing established a security office in Hong Kong, with a law enforcement agency acting independently of domestic courts and the ability to transfer cases for trial to China. “For journalists, that means the same risk considerations they would take in the mainland, now apply in Hong Kong”, Daprian noted at the time.
As local journalists in Hong Kong struggle to cope with the new repressive measures, and foreign news agencies or correspondents relocating to neighbouring countries, independent reporting from Hong Kong is becoming increasingly scarce.