While the New York Times likes to say it runs “all the news that’s fit to print,” getting the news out from their Beijing offices is becoming more and more challenging. China’s propaganda minders see red when they see Western journalists publishing negative news about their “ideal” communist country.
Reporters’ phones are tapped and their e-mails are hacked. It is not easy being a foreign reporter in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) land that looks more and more like a setting from George Orwell’s famous novel 1984. Except it is 2013 and things are not looking good for newspapers like the New York Times.
In a recent article headlined “The Thorny Challenge of Covering China,” the newspaper’s in-house media observer Margaret Sullivan asked a vexing question: “How do major American news organizations write about a communist country with the world’s second-largest economy — a country that doesn’t believe in press rights and that punishes tough-minded coverage?”
She gave US readers four choices: “Aggressively? Cautiously? Fearlessly? Competitively?”
It is true, as the Times noted, that doing business in China, be it news coverage or import/export deals, is lucrative.
The Western media want to be there.
However, it is getting increasingly difficult to report the news from China. Last year, the Times published an article about the enormous wealth of China’s ruling family. The article won a Pulitzer Prize in the US for reporting. As a result, Beijing shuttered the Times’ Web site in China at a cost of about US$3 million in lost revenue, Sullivan said.
The other day, Chinese “officials” walked uninvited into the US-based Bloomberg News offices in Shanghai and Beijing to conduct what they said were routine “inspections.” Welcome to the free and open press in China, which the government promised would result from it being awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics. Fat chance.
The New York Times news service, which the Taipei Times subscribes to (as do several major Chinese-language dailies in Taiwan), has 12 reporters inside China with official accreditation from the Chinese government. The New York Times also has a few reporters working in Hong Kong with official press passes.
The New York Times will continue to report all the news it can from China, and hopefully, the paper’s editors and the Bejing propaganda ministry will come to be on better terms. For now, in today’s climate, being a Western reporter inside the Chinese behemoth is indeed a thorny gig.
So, while Chinese authorities have been withholding visas for New York Times reporters in alleged retaliation for earlier news articles about the wealth accumulated by some party leaders’ families, the Western media wait to see what will happen next.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China recently said that none of the correspondents working for the New York Times inside China have been able to renew their residence visas for 2014, noting in a press release: “The authorities have given no public explanation for their actions, leading to the impression that they have been taken in reprisal for reporting that displeased the government.”
When US Vice President Joe Biden met with New York Times journalists working in Beijing during his recent visit, he stood up for freedom of the press and publicly criticized the way the Chinese government has been treating the media.
Biden also reportedly raised the issue directly with Xi.
One wonders at the shocked expression that must have been on Xi’s face when the US vice president raised the subject. A polite smile? A grimace?
Dan Bloom is a writer in Taiwan.