This month's "On China" discusses the country's media environment
Journalists in China face physical and bureaucratic harassment
As China's economy opens up, more information is available
High-level politics and decision-making processes remain opaque
Editor’s Note: This month’s episode of On China with Kristie Lu Stout is on journalism. It airs for the first time on Wednesday, February 19, 5:30 pm ET. For all viewing times please click here.
In China, the rules are different, with entire regions off limits to reporters, and entire topics, taboo. In their quest to get the story and to shed light on the truth, journalists face harassment and even violence.
While foreign correspondents reporting inside China can be reprimanded or forced to leave the country when the government denies their visa applications, Chinese journalists and their families face an even greater threat. The government says it wants journalists to cover news in an objective way, but at the same time discredits any story that upsets the political balance or casts the Communist Party in unfavorable light.
Join CNN’s Kristie Lu Stout as she explores China’s ever expanding role on the global stage and examines whether its leaders can provide the increased access and transparency journalists are demanding to do their jobs. And hear from veteran journalists about the challenges they’ve faced and the big questions they think need to be answered in the year ahead.
Her guest this month: Charles Hutzler, China bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal; Ying Chan, journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong and co-director of the university’s China Media Project; and Peter Ford, president of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China, and Beijing bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: Ying Chan, Charles Hutzler and Peter Ford, Welcome to ON CHINA. Now, recently the world watched as reporters from BBC and CNN were pushed, shoved, and man-handled, outside the trial of the Chinese activist Xu Zhiyong. Why did Chinese authorities feel compelled to literally push foreign media away from the story?
PETER FORD: Well, because they didn’t want it covered. But of course what they did was make sure it was covered even more enthusiastically, because when journalists get wrestled to the ground, they like to put that on air. I think the police handled it very badly. They’ve handled other sensitive trials in a much better fashion. But they messed that one up and I think they know they messed it up.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: To follow up on this point of physical intimidation, it comes in many different forms, right? There’s also detention, house visits, phone calls. And I’m curious in your experience reporting in China, what have you experienced in terms of physical intimidation by the authorities.
CHARLES HUTZLER: I’ve been in China for a long time and so, being followed does happen from time to time. House visits, very, very rarely. But I think that for visual journalists, for photographers and TV people, the physical intimidation is much worse. And it’s gotten much worse in recent years, particularly out in the countryside in small towns, if you happen to be covering a story that the local officials just do not want to get out. They will do more than push people around and they will grab cameras and confiscate them and in some cases smash them.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: Charles, you said you were followed? How so?
CHARLES HUTZLER: Well, not recently, but the most recent probably, at least the most recent I was able to detect, would have been in early 2011, around the time of the so-called Jasmine Revolution. And there was a concerted effort by authorities in Beijing to make sure that foreigners weren’t covering the story, or at least doing it with great difficulty. And so they had people who would tail us in cars and on foot and make it very obvious that they were doing so.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: There’s physical harassment, there’s also bureaucratic harassment. I’m talking about the visa wars, and the withholding of visas for foreign correspondents in China. How effective has that been in controlling overseas media coverage inside in China? Your thoughts.
YING CHAN: I think it has the inhibiting effect. At least it’s like a warning, that you need to be careful with your reporting. But then with Chinese reporters, I’m talking about Chinese mainland reporters, they have it worse. Because you can be subjected to arrest, being fired from your job, being pushed out. And it’s a very intimidating atmosphere.
CHARLES HUTZLER: The use of, or the threat of not renewing or revoking visas has become much more common in the last few years. For many years, it was only rarely invoked and now, particularly if you’re a reporter that’s covering very sensitive issues, the authorities will bring it up from time-to-time as a reminder.
PETER FORD: Yes, and I mean, this year of course was unprecedented, the sort of pressure they put up on the New York Times and Bloomberg, both of which had written about the private financial affairs of relatives of senior leaders. The entire bureaus of those organizations were implicitly threatened with expulsion, because they had to wait for their visas until the very, very last minute. And the New York Times is still waiting for 3 visas that they have not got. They’ve not been able to get Austin Ramzy in, or Chris Buckley, or indeed their bureau chief, Phil Pan, doesn’t have a proper visa. So I think it’s a clear attempt, in the absence of any official explanation as to why they had to wait this long, it certainly feeds suspicion that it’s retribution for the content of their coverage.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: What topics are deemed sensitive to cover in China, for journalists in China? What are the no-go topics?
PETER FORD: As far as the government’s concerned, I think clearly they have drawn a red line around the private and personal affairs of senior leaders and their relatives. And I think we’ve learned in recent months, I think, anything to do with human rights is clearly sensitive.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: You want to add on this point.
YING CHAN: You have Tibet, you have Xinjiang, you have June Fourth …
CHARLES HUTZLER: … the military …
YING CHAN: … the military. Abuses and corruption allegations of top officials, especially the former members of Politburo or current members, but it seems the list has been growing.
CHARLES HUTZLER: They seem to regard reporting on the leadership and on the private lives of leaders and their families as an attempt by foreign media to interfere in the political balance within China itself.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: That’s why it’s so sensitive.
CHARLES HUTZLER: That’s why, at least that’s what the government is saying, the reason that they dislike it so much. They consider it interference.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: Now you have these taboo topics. You also have taboo geographic locations inside China. Access is an issue. Where can you not go inside China as a correspondent?
PETER FORD: According to the rules, the only place we can’t go is Tibet. The proper Tibet Autonomous Region. And the government was very clear about that when they introduced the new rules, which said that apart from that we could go anywhere in the country, and talk to anybody who was willing to talk to us. Xinjiang is practically impossible to report in. If you try to go to a village where the official news agency has reported there was an outbreak of violence, and you try to get there, you will find that there are roadblocks 5 kilometers around that village, and you will be lucky if you get through them. Whole swaths of Tibetan-inhabited areas of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, reporters have been told that these are out of bounds. Now when you go to the Foreign Ministry and say, is this true, they say, No, it’s not. But if on the ground, local officials and policemen tell you that you can’t be there, and tell villagers that they can’t talk to you. That basically stops you reporting.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: There are so many challenges and so many risk factors for foreign correspondents working in China, but it’s even riskier for Chinese nationals, isn’t it?
YING CHAN: If you work for a news organization, you can be subject to arrest, punishment, the papers could be shut down. You also have Chinese journalists that are becoming more daredevils. They want to tell the stories. Like last year we have this reporter from Caijing, who’s exposed this labor camp in the northeast of China, with documents, with photos, with direct quotes. And the magazine was suspended for a few months. It has now come back. But the stories get out.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: There’s a perception outside China that Chinese journalists must be state-run news reporters, but there is a rise of independent media inside China, right? Independent news journalists who are doing groundbreaking work.
YING CHAN: Yes, absolutely. They do good work from the more commercially-oriented media. But also some are doing good work even with the state media. So we cannot assume that if it’s a party paper, so you must be towing the party line. And of course now we have internet media. So with WeChat, a reporter can set up his own channel. If he got censored in print, he can push the story online.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: So we have Chinese reporters working and reporting on sensitive issues, whether it’s online, and even for state-run news agencies, but also working, Chinese nationals, inside foreign news organizations as news assistants. And because of the risks that they’re up against, I’m just curious what kind of protections are in place in western news organizations to protect your Chinese colleagues?
CHARLES HUTZLER: The people that we most need to protect are our sources, and then our Chinese colleagues, because unlike a foreign correspondent they can’t leave. One is to not push them into things they’re not comfortable with. And the other is to make sure that they’re closely supported so that they’re not out there by themselves in a vulnerable position.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: Now I want to get into the nuts and bolts of investigative reporting in China. How do you do the digging? How do you pick up the scene of a good story and run with it?
PETER FORD: Well it depends. Sometimes it could be something you get a hint of from local press. Sometimes it could be something that you hear from colleagues, Chinese colleagues. Sometimes it can be people who come to you. But I think that’s pretty much like anywhere else in the world. It’s just a great deal harder because people are a good deal more nervous about approaching foreign correspondents. I mean, even I found, some of the people, you talked about, who’ve revealed sensitive issues in their newspapers, or have been prevented from doing so in their newspapers, so they do it on their internet, from their WeChat accounts. When I’ve got in touch with them and said I’d like to follow this up, they have said.. I’m prepared to put it on my WeChat but I do not want to talk to the foreign press about it.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: You know, already in this conversation I’ve heard WeChat come up a couple times. And there have been a lot of reports on how the sensitive discussions are moving from the Weibos, like Sina Weibo, to WeChat. Is that in fact happening? And if that’s happening, are you also moving and putting more emphasis on looking at WeChat conversations, when you use social media in your reporting.
PETER FORD: We scan all of them. I mean, Weibo has come under particular pressure, when it comes to anything that might be called slanderous or untrue, because of course if that is viewed or re-posted more than a certain number of times, it’s then liable to prosecution. So that has made a number of people more nervous about using Weibo. But I think if WeChat started playing the same role, the authorities would probably find similar ways of trying to control the discussion there as well.
CHARLES HUTZLER: The proliferation and availability of smartphones mean that migrant workers in factories in south China are also communicating through social media whether it’s WeChat or Weibo. The government is trying very hard to get on top of these technologies, and they are succeeding in limited ways, but I think the trend is there. They’re losing control of the narrative.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: but how do you cultivate your sources and get them to open up to you?
CHARLES HUTZLER: It’s extremely difficult and it’s been more difficult over the last five years or so, I would say, especially official sources. There’s been a lot of pressure within the system to not speak to foreign reporters, and so cultivating those official sources and maintaining them has become not an impossible, but a near impossible task.
YING CHAN: But the irony is that’s closing up on information there, as China becomes more integrated and more open in its economy, there’re more information available. If you are listed companies in Hong Kong and New York, company records are available. Affiliations to some of these entities are available. So there’s this new phenomenon now is interviewing data, getting at the data and to mine the information. So the Chinese government, they cannot have it both ways. You have a more open economy, right, and you shut down the information? It can’t happen. Information became more accessible.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: It was access to data that led to the David Barboza, Wen Jiabao family fortune. And of course similar reports from Bloomberg and elsewhere.
PETER FORD: But I think this illustrates a broader question, that there is a huge mismatch between China’s increasing role in the world and its interest in getting its message out and being part of the world globally, economically and in other fashion, and its inability, as an official, and a state, to talk to the rest of the world openly. I mean, we find it almost impossible sometimes to get ministerial spokespeople to give the simplest confirmation of anything. Or just even to talk to us, just to answer our telephones. I mean, the other day, I think you were there Charles, a number of bureau chiefs were invited by the State Council Information Office to talk about ways in which they could help us work, ways in which they could facilitate our work. And they were talking about websites and blogs, and this thing and the other. And we said: what we’d really like are the mobile telephone numbers of ministry spokespeople and a commitment that they will answer those phone numbers. And we’re beginning to understand that was an unrealistic request.
CHARLES HUTZLER: This is a basic request. And it’s a point that I have made repeatedly to officials in the Foreign Ministry in the State Council Information Office, that the more information they give us, the better we’ll be able to do our job, and that actually the Chinese government’s position will be better represented around the world. People will understand the government’s position better. And mostly the response is: we know that, but… and we’re trying to change that, but change comes slowly.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: Because of the media environment today in China, how has it affected the way China as a story is covered?
CHARLES HUTZLER: If you’re asking whether the pressure or intimidation somehow affects what we produce, I don’t know of a foreign news organization or a single correspondent who won’t go after the big story. We’re all there to get the best story that we possibly can, and to report on China in all of its complexities. The government makes it much more difficult. And we often have to work very hard to compensate for the lack of information that we’re getting from the government by digging deeper to understand the government’s perspective. But we’re all just there to report the news in as full a fashion as we can.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: Your thoughts on the decision making in a news organization on whether to kill a story or spike a story, in order to preserve access to the China market.
YING CHAN: I think it’s a balance for the corporation if you have business in China. You want to maintain the access. On the other hand, we also expect powerful, international media organizations to tell the story and give the truth as it is, to the best of their ability. Because if powerful major international organizations have to self-censor, the little guys in China, or in Hong Kong, do not have a prayer. It gives me chills, if it’s true that you have international news agencies spiking important stories for access. I don’t think it pays in the long run, or even in the short run. It hurts your credibility.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: Final question for all of you, which is about the great investigative report that you would like to see come out of China in the next year. What do you think are the questions that need to be asked and answered, among journalists, yourselves, your peers, for 2014?
YING CHAN: I still think, the question is follow the money. So it has to go back to the anti-corruption issues. Who’s behind that money. Chinese are making huge investments around the world. They’re building 100 dams in Africa. Two dozen at least in Latin America. You have this very rich man who’s supposed to be building a canal in Nicaragua. So who’s behind this money, where does this money come from. And I think there will be more revelations and those are the big stories.
CHARLES HUTZLER: One issue is one that’s been around a long time, which is we still don’t have not very clear ideas about how decisions are made in China. And it goes to what Ying was just saying, as long as we don’t know how these decisions are made, then much of the way China projects power around the world becomes suspect. And there’s a lot of nervousness as China becomes more powerful, how it intends to use that power. So I would like to see the expose of decision making in China.
PETER FORD: I was going to say the same thing. I was gonna say, the big question, not just for 2014, is how does China work? How does the government function? Who decides what, where, at what level, what interest groups are pushing for this or that solution, and how are they resolved? This is such an opaque country that these fundamental questions are still unresolved. I mean, we don’t even know when the Standing Committee of the ruling Communist Party meets. This is not public information. When you start with that, there’s a lot further you can go.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: And that’s what makes China such a fascinating story to cover and also to watch. Peter Ford, Charles Hutzler, Ying Chan, thank you so much for joining me. I really enjoyed that conversation.