Foreign Correspondents Club of China Reports Declining Press Freedom

Reporting on China has rarely been more difficult, according to the results of an annual survey of foreign journalists conducted by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC). The FCCC itself is also in danger: in April of 2021, a Chinese government spokeswoman labeled the FCCC an “illegal organization.” The organization’s working conditions report, “Media Freedoms Report 2021: ‘Locked Down or Kicked Out’,” found that visa denials, digital harassment, constant surveillance, and the rising threat of lawsuits by sources greatly impeded journalists’ ability to do their jobs. 99% of respondents said reporting conditions in China do not meet international standards. In their responses, leading international journalists detailed the challenges that correspondents face when covering important news in China:

“What’s more, in the last year, many people who once spoke freely and openly, frequently declined to speak by telephone, restricting another avenue of reporting,” [Steven Lee Myers, Beijing Bureau Chief for The New York Times,] said. “That seems to reflect a general climate of fear that journalists in China have also experienced, but it is obviously an even greater challenge for those outside.”

[…] After a state-linked blog published numerous exposes criticizing my reporting from a half year ago as “illegal,” hundreds of Chinese social media accounts began posting my picture along with comments like”beat her to death” and describing sexual acts. -Emily Feng, NPR

[…] In May and June, several correspondents were closely tailed by plainclothes police while visiting the village of Liangjiahe in Shaanxi province where Party leader Xi Jinping spent time as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution. Police intimidated all villagers who spoke with the foreign journalists. In one case, an American correspondent’s taxi driver received calls from police demanding updates regarding their movements. correspondents experienced similar state surveillance and source intimidation while visiting Yan’an in Shaanxi, another key site in Communist Party history, in the weeks leading up to the 100th anniversary of the Party’s founding on July 1. [Source]

In a recent Twitter thread, the FCCC broke down some of the report’s key findings:

In February 2021, the Chinese government charged Australian CGTN anchor Cheng Lei—held in detention since August 2020—with illegally sharing state secrets. Cheng’s close friend, Bloomberg news assistant Haze Fan, was detained in early December 2020 as part of a national security investigation, underscoring the continued dangers that Chinese news assistants face in their roles. Fourteen months later, Haze Fan is still being held in detention, and Chinese authorities have yet to release any further information on her case. An anonymous journalist for an American news outlet told the FCCC: “My Chinese colleague is invited to ‘tea’ by State Security at least every other month and interrogated about our work and warned against crossing ‘red lines’.” David Rennie, Beijing bureau chief for The Economist, told the FCC that Chinese authorities increased use of the law to target journalists is “new and worrying.”

Journalists have also been targeted with expulsions and visa restrictions. BBC correspondent John Sudworth and his wife, RTÉ News China correspondent Yvonne Murray, were hounded out of China due to the former’s reporting on Xinjiang. Sudworth told the FCCC that plainclothes police tailed his family, including their young children, to the airport; it was “final proof of the dangers we faced and of China’s deep intolerance for independent journalism.”

International journalists working in China are subject to constant surveillance. After devastating floods killed hundreds in Henan, provincial officials purchased surveillance systems to target journalists. Foreign correspondents attempting to cover the aftermath of the floods suffered state-directed harassment. Only in January 2022 did the State Council admit that provincial officials had indeed covered up the true death toll of the disaster.

Online trolls have attacked female journalists of Asian descent with particular viciousness. NPR’s Emily Feng, a frequent target of attacks, shared a Twitter thread detailing the response to her light-hearted article on a delicious snack:

Xifan Yang, a correspondent for Germany’s Die Zeit, shared details of the online attacks she faced after breaking the news of a lockdown in Xiong’an, a newly created city about 60 miles southwest of Beijing that Xi Jinping has touted as a model for China’s development:

The fundamental problem for journalists in China remains access. In 2020, the Chinese and American governments engaged in a tit-for-tat over press credentials, resulting in China’s sweeping expulsion of journalists from most major American media outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Since then, curbs on new visa issuances and continued restrictions on re-entry to China have only exacerbated the problem. At The Wall Street Journal, Dan Strumpf reported on the challenges of attempting to report on China at a distance:

The shrinking number of foreign journalists in the country—blocked from entering by stringent visa rules, or driven out by difficult working conditions—has meant “covering China is increasingly becoming an exercise in remote reporting,” the report’s authors wrote.

[…] A deepening concern, many respondents said, was the growing dearth of foreign reporters in China. Authorities are granting few visas to correspondents wishing to be based in the country, while many who successfully enter are subjected to truncated visa stays requiring frequent renewals.

[…] Major media outlets are increasingly forced to cover the country from faraway bureaus in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Australia, diminishing the quality of coverage, the report’s authors wrote.

Following a series of expulsions in 2020 of U.S.-based Chinese journalists and China-based American journalists, both sides agreed in November to ease visa restrictions for the other country’s reporters. The Wall Street Journal was among a handful of U.S. outlets set to receive new press credentials for some staff. As of the end of last year, China had yet to grant visas to the U.S. reporters promised them under the agreement, the foreign reporters’ group said. [Source]

The FCCC’s report comes on the eve of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games. The organization earlier criticized the difficulties that reporters have experienced in accessing the Games. A CNN report shows the stark divide between reporters inside the Olympic bubble and those outside:


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