Chinese Journalist Du Bin Detained for “Picking Quarrels,” Press Freedoms Under Assault

Du Bin, a Chinese journalist whose films and books explored the dark side of recent Chinese history, was detained in Beijing yesterday. He was detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” the same offense levied against citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, as well as hosts of other activists, journalists, and citizens whom Chinese authorities have aimed to silence. Last week, a report published by the Committee to Protect Journalists found that China has imprisoned 47 journalists, more than any other country in the world. Bloomberg news assistant Haze Fan’s arrest last week made 48 journalists behind bars. Du’s makes 49. At The New York Times, Amy Qin reported on Du Bin’s work, his previous detention, and the “indiscriminate” arrests of those the authorities have labeled as threats:

Friends of Mr. Du, who has worked as a freelance photographer for The New York Times, say they believe his detention may have been connected to several of his recent book projects.

One book, published in Taiwan in 2017, was a historical account of what is known as the “siege of Changchun,” when Communist troops blockaded the northeastern Chinese city in 1948 to starve out their rival Nationalist soldiers, leading to the deaths of at least 160,000 civilians. Another book by Mr. Du, about the more nefarious aspects of Lenin’s experiments with Communism, was scheduled to be published in Taiwan on Jan. 1, 2021.

[…] It is not the first time that Mr. Du’s work has provoked the ire of the authorities in China. In 2013, he was detained for just over a month after releasing a documentary about a Chinese forced labor camp and after publishing a book, “Tiananmen Massacre,” about the government crackdown in 1989 on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing. During his detention, he said at the time, he nearly developed an eye infection because he kept one of his contact lenses on longer than he should have so that he could see and document every detail of his experience in custody.

[…] “Given how little these dissidents are able to do these days and how fragmented and powerless they are,” [activist Yaxue] Cao said, “it’s amazing how insecure Xi feels while projecting the image of an invincible party.” [Source]

At The South China Morning Post, Guo Rui relayed Guangzhou pro-democracy activist Wu Yangwei’s reaction to Du Bin’s detention:

“The authorities have already significantly tightened control over the media and the internet in China and are extending control over publishing overseas now, as well as the use of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter outside China,” Wu said.

[…] “The authorities have purged civil society [in China] in the past few years, suppressing free speech and any defiant activities,” he said. “[Activists in China] now live in a state of despair and fear, so I doubt that the detention [of Du] will cause any pushback.” [Source]


Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist also detained for “picking quarrels,” documented Wuhan’s lockdown, sharing videos and essays critical of the strict virus control measures taken by local authorities. In May, Zhang was detained for her reporting, as were other independent chroniclers of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak such as Chen Qiushi, Li Zehua, and Fang Bin. Zhang’s first hearing will take place in late December, despite concerns she may be unfit to stand trial due to her precarious physical condition, the result of a hunger strike launched in June. From AFP via Hong Kong Free Press:

The 37-year-old’s lawyers received notice earlier this week that the hearing will take place in a Shanghai court on December 28.

[…] Her lawyer Zhang Keke wrote in a note circulated on social media that her health was extremely poor and she suffered from headaches, dizziness and stomach pain.

[…] “She feels psychologically exhausted, like every day is a torment… she said her current physical state is too hard to bear.”

The lawyer said that she has vowed not to stop her hunger strike, despite the repeated pleas of her family, friends and lawyers. [Source]

Chinese journalists working for foreign media outlets have also been ensnared by tightening press restrictions. Haze Fan, a Bloomberg News employee, was arrested on December 11 for “jeopardizing national security,” the first “news assistant” arrested on such charges since The New York Times’ Zhao Yan in 2004. Chinese law mandates Chinese citizens working for foreign news bureaus be called “news assistants” rather than journalists, a categorization which can leave them exposed to unfair working conditions. In Politico’s China Watcher newsletter, David Wartime and Shen Lu reported that Chinese authorities have imposed new restrictions on “news assistants” who work for foreign bureaus :

Chinese journos are wondering at a potentially significant bureaucratic change. Several Chinese journalists told POLITICO’s Shen Lu earlier this month that the Beijing Service Bureau for Diplomatic Missions, an agency of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese staff’s employer on paper, had updated their credentials, adding a new classification, “Chinese Secretary,” to their work permits. The agency also asked everyone to sign a pledge, when they claim their new credentials, that promises they will comply with regulations that dictate they can only engage in “auxiliary work” as Chinese citizens employed at foreign news bureaus. [Source]

In Hong Kong, since the June 30 passage of the National Security Law, the city’s famously freewheeling press has increasingly been subject to the same restrictions placed on journalists operating in China. On the same day that Haze Fan was detained in Beijing, outspoken publisher and democracy activist Jimmy Lai was charged with colluding with a foreign country under the National Security Law. Last week, Lai was denied bail and ordered to stay in jail until at least April 2021. Authorities purportedly aim to investigate Lai’s tweets, which they may use as evidence of collusion. In November, Chinese authorities arrested journalist Choy Yuk-ling, who had investigated the “7.21 incident.” In December, popular Hong Kong television station i-Cable abruptly laid off 100 staff members, sparking the resignation of the entire China news desk and likely neutering the network’s coverage of city politics and China. At Nikkei Asia, Michelle Chan examined how press freedoms have changed in Hong Kong since the passage of the National Security Law:

On the annual press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders for 2020, Hong Kong fell to 80 out of 180 countries and territories, on par with Israel and Serbia. Just 10 years earlier, the former British colony was in 34th place.

[…] Beijing officials have repeatedly emphasized its ‘complete jurisdiction’ over Hong Kong. It is obvious that removing dissident voices has become a paramount policy,” said Bruce Lui, a longtime China watcher and a senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University.

“Media play an important role in the city’s social ideology,” Lui said. “Therefore, Beijing sees an imminent need to tighten its oversight on the press.” [Source]

Foreign correspondents also face difficulties reporting in China. At The Globe and Mail, Nathan VanderKlippe detailed the difficulty of reporting on Xinjiang, where journalists are uniformly surveilled:

For the next few hours, [a white Volkswagen] stalked my movements. When I walked, its occupants – a short man with a nervous air and a taller man in a trench coat – followed on foot, tailing me into shops, peering into restaurants and watching as I photographed darkened mosques.

[…] From that moment, I’m not aware of a time when I was not watched outside the confines of a hotel room. At the airport in Urumqi, a police officer stopped me and another Western journalist with whom I had travelled. The officer asked what we were doing, then entered identification information into a cellphone app. Upon landing in Hotan, two officers intercepted us and did the same.

[…] None of this is particularly notable in modern China. In September, an officer in Inner Mongolia grabbed a Los Angeles Times reporter by the throat and threw her into a cell. In Xinjiang, authorities have created a playbook for frustrating journalists, who have reported staged traffic accidents and construction work and safety excuses that strain credulity. In one case, a TV crew was told it could not proceed because sunshine had rendered the freeway asphalt too soft. [Source]

Alice Su of The Los Angeles Times also wrote about being followed while on a rare reporting trip in Xinjiang:

Every day, the two reporters were summoned off trains and planes upon arrival. They were registered, photographed and given coronavirus tests by police. Their car was tailed by several vehicles and men who sometimes called police to stop them. At times, the men manhandled the journalists.

During one confrontation in a village outside Korla, an official blurted: “You can’t speak with the people here. We’ve had too many negative reports from outside. You can only speak with the people we arrange.” Talking to locals would create a “security problem,” he said. [Source]


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