Despite investing billions of US dollars in “soft power” projects to improve its image abroad, China complains it is still getting a lot of bad press and is pointing the finger at foreign journalists.
Authorities routinely accuse China’s 900 foreign reporters — a record number, accredited to more than 400 media organizations — of covering China in a negative way. The journalists, meanwhile, complain of regular hindrance to their work.
The issue came to the fore at a forum last week in Beijing, where media representatives from China — which operates a vast censorship system over the press — and France gathered to try and iron out their differing views.
“It is not that China is against critical reporting,” said Wang Chen (王晨), minister in charge of the press office at the State Council, China’s Cabinet.
“What we don’t accept are double standards based on a Cold War mentality,” he told French Ambassador Sylvie Bermann, who had just highlighted the importance of journalists being allowed to report stories on the ground.
Foreign reporters in China are often blocked from going to breaking news spots, despite official regulations that allow them to travel freely and to interview anyone who gives their consent.
Earlier this month, for instance, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) — an illegal organization in the eyes of Chinese authorities — complained about working conditions for reporters in Tibetan-inhabited areas.
Journalists trying to get to areas hit by deadly unrest in Sichuan Province were repeatedly turned back by police, and authorities in those regions cut Web and telephone communications, making reporting on the issue near impossible.
On Thursday, the FCCC also issued a warning to journalists wanting to cover a revolt against local officials by villagers in eastern China after a Dutch reporter was beaten up by thugs who appeared to be plainclothes police.
Chinese authorities often complain to Western media of their “negative” coverage, pointing to too many stories on dissidents, protests, social unrest, pollution and not enough on China’s economic and cultural achievements.
These concerns surfaced at the forum, organized by the China Institute — a non-profit French organization created in 2009 that says it aims to foster better understanding of China — and by official Chinese partners.
“For the French media, China has become an autocratic country with strong economic growth,” Cui Hongjian (崔洪建) of the China Institute of International Studies said.
“We must provide more positive information to the public,” said Wang Fang (王芳), deputy head of the international section of the People’s Daily newspaper, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece.
Erik Izraelewicz, director of French newspaper Le Monde, said that a journalist “should not have to judge whether news is negative or positive, just whether there is any news.”
“Our mission is to inform,” he said.
The Chinese government is making efforts to push the nation’s various ministries, administrations and local authorities to be more open and better respond to the needs of the foreign press.
“We have a project to train officials to talk to the media,” Cui said.
Authorities in some sensitive areas of China, such as the Xinjiang region, which is regularly hit by ethnic unrest, have let foreign journalists in under strict surveillence — in stark contrast to Tibetan-inhabited areas.