As the new leadership in Beijing vows to undertake a fresh round of economic reforms, political reforms have been completely removed from the agenda and the foreign media has come under more pressure than at any time since the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
As well, there has been an intensifying program of internet censorship at the hands of the country’s sophisticated propaganda machine and its army of hundreds of thousands of human censors.
Although the environment for foreign journalists in China had been getting better, not worse, in the past few years, that appears to be changing. Before the 2008 Olympics, foreign journalists were technically required to get permission from individual provinces to report in each region. This restriction has been lifted and journalists can generally move quite freely about the country, but there are exceptions: Tibet has remained completely off limits to foreign media, as well as large swathes of the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu, which have millions more Tibetan people.
Similarly, parts of Xinjiang, home to the Uyghur Muslim ethnic group that is seen by Beijing as having terrorist connections, have remained off limits to all but the bravest correspondents.
The websites of major international news organisations Bloomberg and The New York Times have been blocked in China following their publication last year of stories detailing the vast wealth accumulated by the families
of China’s President Xi Jinping and its former premier, Wen Jiabao, who retired in March. The families of China’s very top leaders have for many years been the only really official no-go zone for foreign media, but now it seems a fresh crackdown on other levels of “dissent” by international writers is underway.
In the past 18 months US citizen Melissa Chan, who worked for Al Jazeera’s English language service, had her visa revoked. More recently, veteran reporter Paul Mooney, who had spent 18 years working in China for the South China Morning Post and has been a critic of the Chinese government’s human rights policies, was denied a visa for a new role with Reuters in Beijing.
Two journalists employed by The New York Times to work in Beijing have been indefinitely denied visas. They are putative bureau chief Philip Pan – who had previously been a China-based correspondent for The Washington Post – and Australian national Chris Buckley, who was forced to leave Beijing with his family last year. He remains in Hong Kong.
While China insists on keeping a tight rein on the number of journalists it allows into the country, Western nations have let China’s state-run media agencies Xinhua, the People’s Daily, the China Daily and CCTV place many hundreds of journalists in foreign bureaus, part of a concerted $6 billion campaign to improve China’s image overseas and try to assert so-called “soft power”.
There is an ongoing debate within the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) and also more broadly about reciprocity: only allowing as many Chinese journalists into a country as China allows that country access to residency visas in China.
In the past few months, Beijing has made it more difficult for all foreign residents – not just media – to get visas initially, with a raft of new and more onerous rules for every class of visa being instituted on July 1.
The FCCC’s annual Reporting Conditions survey has shown that for each of the past two years, its members think working conditions have grown worse. “The past year has seen unprecedented examples of investigative journalism by Western reporters in China. Unfortunately, the Chinese government has increasingly resorted to threats and intimidation against foreign media,” states the survey.
Security officials in China have at times used physical force to stop journalists reporting in “sensitive” parts of the country, with some journalists suffering physical harm. There is also intimidation. “One foreign reporter whose articles angered elements of the Chinese government was told by the manager of the building where he lives that security officials had visited and asked the manager questions about the reporter’s family life, the layout of his apartment, where his children went to school and other personal questions,” reports the FCCC.
Even more disturbing is the rising incidence of locally employed assistants – essential to the work of all foreign correspondents in China – being questioned and harassed by Chinese authorities.
“Thirty per cent of respondents to the FCCC survey said that their Chinese assistants had been called in by the police or other security forces to ‘drink tea’, a euphemism for an interrogation,” states the FCCC.
“The employees are commonly asked to inform the police about reporters’ activities and plans. Two such assistants have reported that their relatives have also come under official pressure on account of their work.”
The situation has reached the point where it is being taken up with politicians around the world by media groups. Germany’s Angela Merkel has raised the issue with Beijing. Will Tony Abbott’s team do the same?
This story was originally published in the Walkley Magazine, November 2013, http://www.walkleys.com/