China has never been a good place for investigative reporters to ply their trade. Those who report on government corruption, police brutality and environmental degradation face intimidation, violence and jail. This repressive environment is well documented and the lack of press freedom is an established fact.
However, foreign media have been largely shielded from such behavior, although the authorities still do everything they can to limit their access to information. No longer.
The dragon bared its teeth recently when a number of foreign reporters, including a Bloomberg journalist, were roughed up when trying to cover a possible protest against authoritarian government rule. The Bloomberg correspondent was knocked to the ground and kicked, while others were harassed by plainclothes security personnel.
The issue of contention was the so-called “Jasmine Revolution,” which has spread like wildfire across the Arab world and all the way to China.
Although it is extremely unlikely that these protests will take root in the world’s fastest-growing economy, Beijing has proven itself extremely sensitive to suggestions to the contrary, particularly as the tensions between the economic haves and the have-nots continue to grow nationwide.
Add to this the fact that Chinese officials have never atoned for the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989, in which scores of protesting students were killed by the military, and one can see why the Chinese security apparatus prefers to pre-emptively jail anybody it deems likely to lead protests.
Any journalist doing their job properly should cover protests in Beijing. They would find out when and where such a protest might happen and show up, pen, camera and computer in hand to cover it. That is how freedom of the press works, and that in a nutshell is the problem Beijing has with foreign journalists.
Chinese officials want those pesky reporters to shut up and simply report how good the country is, how fast the economy is growing and what a good idea it is for foreign businesses to invest in China.
However, foreign reporters would not be doing their job if they simply accepted the official line. Businesses investing in China need to know about the forces at work there, whether protests will spiral out of control and if environmental degradation could act as a brake on growth.
After Chinese police and security personnel roughed up the foreign reporters, Western governments were quick in their condemnations. US and EU diplomats, as well as international media groups, called on China to show restraint and allow correspondents to do their job.
China, true to form, missed the point completely.
In a rambling attack on the media, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Jiang Yu (姜瑜) blamed the reporters for the violence, saying they were creating news rather than covering it.
“It’s a busy street [in the Wangfujing District of Beijing] with many people passing along it. There was nothing going on. Whose instructions were the reporters who went there acting on? Who told them to congregate there?” she asked.
The answer is that they were directed there by the same people who called on Beijing to send scores of police — the people who were planning the protest. How did the reporters know that something might happen at that location? The same way the police knew — they read it on the Internet.
In suggesting that the reporters were creating news, Jiang added that the police were simply providing reasonable guidance and the whole ruckus would never have happened if the foreign media had simply done as they were told.
Those sound like the words of a mafia boss: “As long as you pay, I’ll protect you from my thugs.”
Or in China’s case: “As long as you cooperate [report nothing], the police will not beat you.”
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