For foreign journalists in the Chinese capital, the end of the year brings the usual swirl of holiday parties, talk of escaping the bracing cold for the warmer climes of Southeast Asia and one inevitable question: Did you get your new visa yet?
The good news is that unlike last year — when the Chinese government delayed the issuance of some journalist visas, prompting the intervention of US Vice President Joe Biden during a state visit in December — the authorities appear to be renewing hundreds of annual resident journalist visas without a hitch this year. That includes reporters from the New York Times and Bloomberg News, two media outlets that last year were targeted for their investigative coverage of the wealth of the families of China’s top leaders.
However, the progress on visa renewals obscures what many correspondents say is a mounting hostility toward Western media outlets operating in China. The government continues to block the Web sites of the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and the Times, and a number of Times reporters have been forced to leave mainland China after the government declined to process their visa applications.
Many foreign correspondents say it is increasingly difficult to carry out their work in China. Tibet remains off-limits, and the volatile western region of Xinjiang has effectively become a no-go zone, with police harassment making it nearly impossible to investigate the bloody clashes between ethnic Uighurs and Chinese security forces that claimed hundreds of lives this year.
Earlier this week, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China published a harrowing catalogue of recent incidents that suggest a creeping intolerance of photographers, reporters and video crews working in places that are officially open to foreign journalists.
In recent months, more than a dozen correspondents have been roughed up, detained or shadowed by plainclothes police officers as they tried to work in far-flung provinces as well as the heart of the nation’s capital.
In October, one wire service employee said he was manhandled, locked to a metal chair and held for more than 14 hours after he attempted to report from outside the main petition office in Beijing. The correspondent refused to strip down for a physical exam, but was forced to submit to a drug test and then falsely accused of injuring one of his interrogators. As retribution, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued him a six-month press card, not the one-year card that is usually pro forma.
Many of those who reported harassment to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club requested that their names, and in some cases the names of their employers, be withheld for fear of angering the authorities.
In interviews, several of those who have experienced harassment said it was disproportionate to the sensitivities of the subject at hand. In August, an Associated Press camera crew covering the opening — and subsequent closing — of an underground film festival in Beijing was attacked by a crowd of thugs who damaged their equipment, splashed them with water and snatched one of the correspondents’ phones.
“We were completely shocked, because you don’t expect that kind of reaction covering a small film festival,” one reporter said, adding that the police just stood by as the violence unfolded.
In many ways, the growing intolerance of foreign journalists mirrors the hostility experienced by civil society groups, liberal academics and rights defenders under the two-year-old administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平). In internal speeches and editorials published in state-owned news media, the Chinese Communist Party has characterized Western reporters as “hostile foreign forces” seeking to subvert single-party rule.
“Western anti-China forces led by the United States have joined in one after the other, and colluded with dissidents within the country to make slanderous attacks on us in the name of so-called press freedom and constitutional democracy,” one propaganda official in Jiangsu Province wrote last year in a party-run journal.
Foreign Correspondents’ Club president Peter Ford said many reporters increasingly find themselves stonewalled by local officials, some of whom acknowledge that they have been instructed not to speak to the foreign media.
“It does seem to reflect a general sense of official mistrust of outsiders,” said Ford, who is the Beijing bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor.
The foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment on Wednesday.
After more than four decades in China, CNN Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz takes a long view about the ups and downs of working as a foreign journalist in China.
FlorCruz, who has reported for Time and Newsweek magazines over the years, recalls the days when the foreign press corps needed government permission to leave the capital and official minders made it difficult to interact with ordinary Chinese.
“Figuring out how to shrug off your handlers and get several minutes to do what you wanted became an art,” he said in an interview.
As part of its bid for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing relaxed those travel restrictions, leading to a boom of media coverage from the nation’s hinterland — including stories about pollution, corruption and everyday injustice that the government undoubtedly wishes had remained obscured to foreign audiences.
However, FlorCruz, like other veteran reporters in China, has seen a noticeable decline in official openness, which he said reflected insecurity and unseen turmoil within the nation’s leadership.
As he contemplates retirement in the coming year, FlorCruz, 63, reflected on what he described as the Chinese government’s struggle to navigate its newfound status as an economic and diplomatic power.
“The government should realize that being big also means you are in the spotlight, which includes figuring out how to take constructive criticism,” he said. “China needs thicker skin.”
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