Learning to read the tea leaves: Reporting in China

While the general trend in China is toward a more open environment, there is a tendency toward “soft harassment” by police, who threaten retribution to sources and news assistants for helping foreign journalists rather than interfering directly with the journalists themselves. 

This was the assessment of two journalists at a roundtable in Washington today. The panel on reporting in China, organized by the Congressional Executive Commission on China, included Jocelyn Ford, freelance journalist and former chair of Media Freedoms Committee, Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, and Kathleen McLaughlin, China correspondent for BNA and the club’s current Media Freedoms Committee chair.

The two described the latest trends in a reporting environment that changes so rapidly it frequently makes the news in its own right. They talked about the need to protect sources and said that foreign correspondents in China should learn to “read the tea leaves” in an unpredictable environment: Journalists need to pay attention to how they communicate and recognize the likelihood that they will be monitored by officials.

After weathering the 20th anniversary of the protests in Tiananmen square and another round of ethnic violence in Xinjiang this year, the Chinese government is developing a more sophisticated way of dealing with demands for media freedom as it looks ahead to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, which falls on October 1. The roundtable provided a welcome opportunity to assess the situation in the run-up to that landmark.

Journalistic professionalism practiced by foreigners as well as Chinese journalists will ultimately benefit media freedom as a whole in a country where leaders have made a tradition of mediating public information, said panelist Ashley Esarey, a visiting assistant professor of politics at Whitman College. He added he would encourage international journalists going to China to study Chinese.

Ford told how she recently asked if she could interview a local court official in a tiny village in Inner Mongolia. “Of course you can, we have media freedom now,” the official replied, although she did not have time to go through the application process for an on-the-record interview, which would have required permission from outside the village. Regardless, the discussion was a positive development, Ford said. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The final paragraph has been corrected; Ford was never officially denied a request for an interview.