Ask just about any foreign correspondent who operates in China nowadays and you are bound to be told that the media environment there has recently gone from bad to worse.
While unfettered journalism has never existed in modern China, the rules on what reporters could and could not write about became more permissive after Mao Zedong (毛澤東) passed away and more pragmatic leaders took over. The environment hardened again following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, but since then reporters, foreign and local, have seen relative improvements.
Despite those new freedoms, some areas remain perennially out of bounds, including coverage of large-scale civil unrest. Meanwhile, the government’s attitude toward reporting on human rights, corruption and environmental damage is haphazard, marked by occasional detentions, expulsions and, sometimes, surprising leniency.
Until this week, the last foreign accredited journalist to have had his reporting rights denied by the Chinese authorities was Yukihisa Nakatsu of Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, who was expelled in October 1998 for allegedly having accessed “state secrets.”
An earlier victim was Pulitzer Prize winner Andrew Higgins of the Washington Post, who recently made the news in Taiwan with his interview of Want Want Group chairman Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明), during which Tsai reportedly denied that a massacre took place on June 1989, sparking a war of words between his media empire and the Post. Higgins, then with the Independent, was expelled from China in 1991 after being found with “confidential information” about activists in Inner Mongolia.
Now, with China facing a series of domestic controversies, the government appears to once again be tightening the screw on the media. On Monday, al-Jazeera was forced to close its bureau in Beijing after its chief correspondent, Melissa Chan, was denied a renewal of her press credentials and Chinese authorities refused to allow a replacement. What appears to have angered Beijing most was a documentary in November that criticized China’s re-education through labor program, though Chan, who has a long record of solid reporting on human rights in China, is said to have played no role in the production.
All this occurs at a time when Beijing is pressuring other governments, including Taiwan’s, to open their doors to more Chinese journalists. However, the problem is that this is not a level playing field, as Chinese reporters — especially those selected by China to represent state media like the Xinhua news agency and the People’s Daily abroad — have far more room to maneuver than do foreign reporters in China.
Although there are arguments in favor of exposing more Chinese journalists to free societies, there is equally a risk that this could lead to a situation where foreign reporters in China self-censor for fear of being expelled. Meanwhile, their Chinese counterparts can freely send back stories about the West, or Taiwan, that emphasize what their editors and political masters want their domestic audiences to read about, which more often than not is the uglier side of democracy and free-market capitalism.
(This is without even mentioning that state media, especially Xinhua, often serve as a front for Chinese intelligence abroad.)
Taiwanese reporters could be especially vulnerable. Beijing would likely have little compunction in mistreating Taiwanese, or at least giving them the same treatment it reserves for its own investigative journalists who defy censorship on a daily basis, often at great personal cost.
At some point, the rest of the world will have to retaliate by denying visas to Chinese journalists. Tit-for-tat is a language that Beijing understands. If such measures are not taken, Beijing will increasingly control the nature of the news we consume, not just about China, but our own countries as well.