Tougher tactics emerge in China’s media crackdown

Late in 2013, Time‘s Hannah Beech posted a great blog on the magazine’s website around the time that about 24 foreign journalists were worried that the visas allowing them to work in China might not be approved: “Foreign Correspondents in China Do Not Censor Themselves to Get Visas,” she told readers. She’s right, of course, and some more proof that they won’t dial back their coverage arose last week. 

On Friday, the board of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China sent a letter to Chen Mingjian at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department. They said they were “deeply concerned” (read “really angry”) about the violent treatment meted out to some of their members outside the court where government critic and civil rights campaigner Xu Zhiyong was being tried last Wednesday, January 22. The confrontations happened during Xu’s closed-door trial, where police outside the courtroom manhandled reporters from CNN, BBC and Sky News.

This all happened in Beijing. Reporters, especially camera crews and photographers, are used to getting shoved around by cops and thugs on the payroll of corrupt local officials in the provinces while covering village and township-level demonstrations. But nothing this big has happened in Beijing since police tried to stop reporters who showed up for a street rally during the Arab Spring uprisings in February 2011. That rally never materialized, but the police showed up in force and resorted to tactics similar to those they used Wednesday.

More evidence that reporting on China isn’t being curtailed? A collaborative investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) was released, revealing that relatives of China’s political elite, including the brother-in-law of President Xi Jinping, own offshore companies in tax havens. More than 50 news organizations around the world worked to analyze two and a half million files to produce the report. ICIJ says many of the files were leaked from within two offshore firms–Singapore-based Portcullis TrustNet and BVI-based Commonwealth Trust Limited–that help clients create offshore companies, trusts, and bank accounts. ICIJ’s full explanation of their investigative methods can be found here.

China’s government was not happy., which monitors websites censored by China, found that as of Sunday, China had blocked the sites of a dozen news organizations that contributed to the investigation, including the U.K.’s Guardian, Spanish newspaper El Pais and French newspaper Le Monde.

Speaking last week at a foreign ministry briefing in Beijing, government spokesman Qin Gang expressed suspicion over ICIJ’s report, telling reporters: “From the point of view of readers, the logic of some of the related articles is unconvincing, and it leads people to suspect the intentions behind it.”

The ICIJ’s piece, “Leaked Records Reveal Offshore Holdings of China’s Elite,” is the sort of reporting that seems to have brought down the wrath of immigration officials on those 24 foreign reporters late in 2013–see the December CPJ 2013 blog, “Covering China goes far beyond the current visa woes.”

Will there be retaliation beyond the blocking of a few websites? It is hard to believe there won’t be in some form, somewhere down the line. Until recently, the government was less concerned about international coverage. Before the spread of so many digital platforms, Chinese citizens didn’t have much access to foreign media. Now, despite the government’s attempts at restriction, they do: foreign reporting resonates deeply within China, mostly through social media. And, as China has started to assert itself internationally, it has become much more preoccupied with its image.

It is also worth noting that reporting on corruption was the reason Xu Zhiyong, a champion of the New Citizens’ Movement who called for government transparency, was on trial in the first place. While the police were stifling coverage outside the court, Xu was sentenced on Sunday to four years in jail for “gathering a crowd to disturb public order.” 

On January 21, The South China Morning Post reported that a Hong Kong-based publisher who was working on a critical book about Xi — Chinese Godfather Xi Jinping — has been detained on the mainland for nearly three months. Yao Wentian, 73, the chief editor of Morning Bell Press, was allegedly taken into custody on October 27 after he was “lured to Shenzhen on the pretense of delivering paint to a long-time friend,” according to sources speaking to the Post. He was then surrounded by a dozen plainclothes security agents. Formally arrested in early November, he is being held in the detention center of a medical facility, according to the Post.

CPJ’s calls to the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau went unanswered. People who have spoken to Yao’s 74-year-old wife told the Post that the publisher suffers from heart problems and had fainted repeatedly during his detention.

The determination of Xi’s government to control foreign and domestic media has been made clear in policy statements and by its actions in public. Expect the situation for Chinese and foreign journalists to become more restrictive in this Year of the Horse. According to some feng shui masters, the sign represents leadership, combined with recklessness.