A Chinese province has commissioned the construction of a surveillance system aimed at tracking journalists and foreign students, among other groups. Henan, a province in central China, commissioned the system in July of this year, shortly after huge floods devastated the province. Foreign reporters covering the floods were harassed by local residents after a noisy online campaign led by both state media and nationalist social media accounts encouraged Henan residents to conduct vigilante surveillance of journalists. Correspondents from the Los Angeles Times, Deutsche Welle, the Associated Press, and Al-Jazeera all reported varying degrees of harassment. At the same time, Chinese authorities issued strict censorship instructions for flood coverage while conducting a campaign to put a “cute” face on the disaster. Reuters’ “Beijing Newsroom” broke the news about Henan’s planned surveillance system:
A July 29 tender document published on the Henan provincial government’s procurement website – reported in the media for the first time – details plans for a system that can compile individual files on such persons of interest coming to Henan using 3,000 facial recognition cameras that connect to various national and regional databases.
[…] “While the PRC has a documented history of detaining and punishing journalists for doing their jobs, this document illustrates the first known instance of the PRC building custom security technology to streamline state suppression of journalists,” said IPVM’S Head of Operations Donald Maye, using the initials of the People’s Republic of China.
[…] “Suspicious persons must be tailed and controlled, dynamic research analyses and risk assessments made, and the journalists dealt with according to their category,” the tender reads. [Source]
CDT has translated a relevant portion of the procurement document, the original Chinese text of which is available on the IPVM website:
Initial drafts divide reporters into three categories of “people of interest” (关注人员). Levels one, two, and three are labeled red, yellow, and green, respectively:
- Level-one personnel are labeled red, indicating that they are “high-priority people of interest” (重点关注人员).
- Level-two personnel are labeled yellow, indicating that they are “medium-priority people of interest” (一般关注人员). The standard for such designations is whether the target reporter has a record of illegal reporting (which should be cross-referenced against the Public Security Bureau’s entry-exit management database.)
- Level-three personnel are labeled green, indicating that they are “trustworthy personnel” (放心人员). They should be designated as harmless journalists, subject to the usual monitoring. [Chinese]
The International Federation of Journalists called for China to “cease these practices immediately and respect freedom of the press in accordance with international standards.” State media outlets, meanwhile, defended the surveillance program. The Global Times published a Chinese-language WeChat post (in response to the Reuters article) arguing that “anti-China elements […] come to China under the disguise of international students or journalists and conduct espionage, subversive activities, as well as separatism,” according to IPVM. Foreign students are increasingly seen as politically suspect. A portion of the harassment campaign against reporters after the Henan flood targeted Alice Su, a journalist who completed a graduate program at Peking University and is currently Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Her online harassers called for the university to “strengthen the inspection of international students’ political background and cultivate fewer enemy collaborators like Su.”
Journalism can be a dangerous profession in China. In a recently published report, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) offers a tally of 127 journalists currently in Chinese state custody, and notes that 18 foreign correspondents were forced out of the country in 2020, and that three foreign journalists (Gui Minhai, Yang Hengjun, and Cheng Lei) have been charged with espionage. The RSF report emphasizes the severity of these attacks on journalism: “Since President Xi Jinping came into power in early 2013, a wave of arrests unprecedented since the end of the Maoist era has hit journalists and political commentators across the country, abruptly ending a decade of experimentation with pluralism and debate in Chinese media.” At The Guardian, Helen Davidson provided further context on the RSF report:
“No matter the topic, those who refuse to comply with the official narrative are accused of harming national unity,” [asserted the report.]
[…] The report listed a growing number of “obstacles” to journalism, including online censorship and surveillance, paid amateur propagandists known as the “50 cent army”, increasing use of detention without trial, Hong Kong’s national security law, forced televised confessions, daily instructions from the Communist party to newsrooms and other platforms, use of allegations ranging from “picking quarrels” to espionage to silence journalists, and the weaponising of exit bans.
[…] “The repression no longer spares Hong Kong, once a champion of press freedom, where a growing number of arrests are now conducted in the name of national security,” said [RSF’s secretary general, Christophe Deloire.] [Source]
The firing of a journalist/academic over her comments on the death toll of the Nanjing Massacre (commemorations of which have been stridently nationalist, at times comically so) illustrated the powerful silencing effect that nationalism has exerted on journalistic inquiry. At the China Media Project, David Bandurski reported on the firestorm that followed a Shanghai vocational college professor’s comments on history:
The storm began on December 15 as a short video circulated online – apparently shared by a student “informant” – of a lecture in which Song Gengyi (宋庚一) questioned the 300,000 official number given by the Chinese government for the number of victims in the Nanjing Massacre, a tragedy that unfolded on December 13, 1937, as the Imperial Japanese Army captured the capital city of Nanjing during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Song made the remarks during her December 14 “News Interview” (新闻采访) course at Shanghai’s Aurora College, held the day after nationwide commemoration of the massacre’s anniversary.
On the afternoon of Thursday, December 16, the official Weibo account of the People’s Daily, the CCP’s flagship newspaper, weighed in on Song’s remarks. The tone of the post, which called the 300,000 number “iron-clad fact” (铁证如山), was severe. It said that Song was “errant as a teacher” (枉为人师) for “questioning historical truth,” and that she was “errant as a compatriot” (枉为国人) for “forgetting hardships and denying the evil deeds of another country.”
Within hours news came of Song’s firing. According to a notice issued on Thursday evening by Aurora College, Song, whose position was formally with the college’s Eastern Film Academy (东方电影学院), had “spoken erroneously” (错误言论) during her class on news reporting, and had been fired on the grounds that the incident had been “a major teaching accident generating a serious negative social impact.” She had been fired, the notice said, on the basis of two internal college guidelines, on disciplinary measures for teaching staff and on the “handling of teaching accidents” (教学事故). [Source]
A report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found that China leads the world in journalists imprisoned, but put the number at 50, less than half of RSF’s count. CPJ found that media sources are also at risk: 11 people were arrested for allegedly providing information to the Falun Gong-affiliated media group The Epoch Times. In Hong Kong, news publishers have been a target of the National Security Law: Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai was recently sentenced to 13 months in jail for his tangential participation in an unauthorized vigil commemorating the anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. In China, citizen-journalist Zhang Zhan is on the brink of death after launching a series of hunger strikes to protest the lack of due process in her trial and the poor treatment she has received during her incarceration. Foreign journalists, and a select few at that, have been allowed only extremely limited access to the upcoming 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing.