China has always had an uneasy relationship with the foreign press that covers it. Journalists filing stories deemed too sensitive have routinely been invited to meet authorities “for tea”—a euphemism for a stern lecture about their reporting. But since opening the country to reporters in the late 1970s, the foreign press has been mostly tolerated, even courted, by the Chinese government. But for how long?
Though for years officially barred from reporting outside Beijing, many did anyway, and journalists have largely been left to report what they found. In recent years, leading international news outlets have beefed up their China bureaus, even as other news desks around the globe have shrunk and shuttered. And much of the journalism has been exemplary. The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, who recently left Beijing for Washington DC, has called this a “golden age of foreign correspondence in China.”
But 2013 was a hard year for journalism in China. In November, the New York Times published a story quoting unnamed journalists from Bloomberg News who accused senior editors of killing an investigative series examining ties between a businessman and politicians in Beijing out of fear of reprisals from Chinese authorities.
According to interviews with the Times, Bloomberg reporters said that Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg’s editor-and-chief, had compared the situation in China to Nazi-era Germany, when reporters self-censored in order to maintain access to the country. (Winkler has denied the allegations, claiming the stories were still active but not ready for publication.) In the days that followed, Michael Forsythe, the author of the investigation, was escorted from Bloomberg’s office in Hong Kong and later left the company.
The Times’ story came amid the Chinese government’s biggest crackdown on foreign journalists in decades. In fact, Bloomberg itself was one of the principal targets—retaliation, many believe, for reports that examined the wealth of new Chinese president Xi Jinping’s family. The crackdown sparked condemnation from news organizations and governments around the world. It also prompted a bout of soul searching among members of foreign press in Beijing.
As China delays or denies visas to journalists who work for media outlets that have investigated some of the most powerful figures in the country, the international press corps is left asking difficult questions: in the months and years ahead, will it still possible to do critical investigative journalism in China while maintaining a permanent presence in the country? Or in order to cover China, will news outlets need to limit negative reporting, as Bloomberg is alleged to have done?
Furthermore, will media companies be able to pursue both journalistic and business interests in China? There are no easy answers. As James L. McGregor, former chief of Dow Jones & Company in China, recently told the Times: “It’s looking increasingly like as a media company, you have a choice in China: you either do news or you do business, but it’s hard to do both.”
China’s crackdown on foreign correspondents began two years ago and is a reversal of measures implemented before the Olympics that allowed foreign correspondents greater access to the country. In May 2012, Melissa Chan of Al-Jazeera English became the first correspondent expelled in 13 years. Chris Buckley of the Times was forced to leave China in late 2012 after his visa expired and has been waiting for a new visa for more than a year. In November, Paul Mooney, who covered China for almost two decades for publications including Newsweek and the South China Morning Post, was denied a visa when he applied as a Thomson Reuters correspondent. Mooney was known for his investigations of abuses of power.
In late 2013, it became clear that this was more than just a crackdown on a few select journalists who drew the ire of Communist Party officials. Visa applications for almost two dozen reporters from the Times and Bloomberg News were delayed without warning or reason, prompting fears among the journalism community in China that the two organizations’ bureaus may be shut.
In late December, most applications were finally approved—a relief, no doubt—but one Beijing-based journalist for a leading international news organization calls the development a “false win.” The journalist noted that the government has stirred fear in the journalism community about its future in China. It was “a clear flex of the authoritarian muscles, so to speak,” the reporter said. “Perhaps worst off, they’ve completely taken attention away from the journalists who were already waiting.”
The reason behind China’s crackdown on Western journalists is clear: the foreign press has in recent years investigated the most powerful political and business figures in the country. The Times, for example, published a lengthy report about the $2.7bn fortune accumulated by the family of former premier Wen Jiabao. Chinese leaders are now attempting to shield themselves from unwanted—and unflattering—coverage. Since their respective reports, sales of Bloomberg’s financial terminals – the company’s primary business – have halted in China, and the Times’ Chinese language site—a key strategy for the brand to make inroads into the Chinese market—has been blocked.
What can be done? Some have called for restricting the number of visas for Chinese journalists covering the United States. Vice-president Joe Biden brought up the issue during his recent China visit, publicly chastising Chinese leaders for refusing to say whether they will renew the visas and for blocking websites of American news outlets. He warned of retaliations should visas be denied, but did not specify.
There is also a broader, more alarming trend: China’s crackdown on the free flow information goes beyond the small cohort of foreign correspondents. Leaders have reigned in free expression on the internet, and professors critical of the government have been fired from leading universities. The government has also tightened its grip on local media. According to training material for news reporters and editors, published last year, the media “must be loyal to the party, adhere to the party’s leadership and make the principle of loyalty to the party the principle of journalist profession.”
None of this bodes well for the future of journalism in China. For now, however, leading foreign media outlets insist their coverage of China will remain unchanged, even if China continues to crackdown on foreign journalists. “Unfettered coverage of China is a crucial issue,” Jill Abramson, the Times’ executive editor, has said, adding that the paper would continue to do the “highest quality of journalism about China.” For now, the Times and others are able to continue, but one cannot help but ask: if present trends continue, how many reporters will left in China to cover it?