No spring in China, but are the media heading for a fall?

Here’s a quick toss to a video posted on YouTube by Australian Broadcasting’s reporter Stephen McDonell. He and his crew decided to confront some Chinese security types (not surprisingly they didn’t identify themselves) who had been following them in Wenzhou while reporting in China. The team was covering religion, including underground or “house” churches–those not sanctioned by the government. The confrontation with McDonell’s watchers in a posh hotel lobby is telling. McDonell’s full story aired on May 17; you can find it at And add a round of applause for the crew’s cameraman Rob Hill for getting so much of the confrontation on tape. 

This sort of surveillance has become more common in the past year or so, but has always been a reality for international reporters working in China. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China had been posting such incidents over the years, but a February 21 notice on its homepage explains why they’ve stopped doing that:

Important Announcement

To ensure the continued operation of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, we are currently not posting incident reports or statements on our website. We are, however, still collecting this information on behalf of our members. If you have an incident to report or want further information about these matters, please contact us directly.

The last incident of harassment of a foreign journalist the FCCC posted was on June 17, 2010. CPJ has been told that the government had been pressuring the clube to stop posting such reports for months before that.

There is a tendency to argue that the crackdown on media, and dissent, in China stems from the government’s fear of Chinese emulating the example of uprisings in Middle East and North African countries. But really, the current media clampdown on anything the government might consider “disruptive” predates that by years. In the months and years after the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, not only has the government’s promise of new media freedoms disappeared, but pressures have grown–CPJ’s 2008 report “Falling Short: Olympic Promises Go Unfulfilled As China Falters on Press Freedom” remains surprisingly relevant after three years.

With authorities filtering the words “Jasmine Revolution” from search engines and Internet discussion boards, there might well be no Arab Spring moment in China. But while the media climate might be increasingly cold it is still too early to call this winter.

In 2010, CPJ’s Asia program’s senior researcher, Madeline Earp, managed to report from inside China about the debate on press rights in China as the central government was amping up its determination to control the media (“In China, a debate on press rights.”) Earp found a world in which many reporters and their editors saw government restrictions as an obstacle to doing their job, one they were always trying to work around.

And a few months ago I met with an editor of one of the government’s most prominent main media outlets. Given the realities in China, I’ll protect the person’s identity, even though they might well not care if they are named. They argued passionately that while there are restrictions handed down hourly by a vast state censorship apparatus, China’s media are as free as they have ever been and growing freer. And, despite their role at a prominent government media organization, this person was clearly not simply spouting a government line. It was their firm belief, formed after building their career over several years, and having often traveled internationally.