Q&A: How to cope with perils of being a Chinese news assistant for foreign media

News assistants, or zhongmi (which literally means “Chinese secretaries”), are Chinese citizens working for foreign journalists in China. They play a number of roles including monitoring news leads, conducting research, translating materials, and arranging interviews, as well as acting as cultural liaisons who can explain social and political phenomena to journalists who may not be fluent in Chinese or have not long been in the country. As a former China correspondent for Agence France-Presse told the Asia Society, “Most foreign bureaus would be nothing without their Chinese news assistants.”

But their role is a precarious one, and they must learn to straddle the expectations of their employers and the pressures of China’s security apparatus.

Given the Chinese government’s increasingly stringent control over the press–as evidenced by China being the world’s worst jailer of journalists, according to CPJ’s most recent annual prison census –journalists in China are often subject to surveillance and harassment by the police. But, unlike foreign correspondents, who are usually protected by their nationality and risk being expelled from China as the most severe form of retaliation, harassment of Chinese news assistants can mean jail time. Recently, Zhang Miao of German weekly Die Zeit was imprisoned for more than nine months.

Even though the space for news media is increasingly restricted under the government of President Xi Jinping, pressure on Chinese journalists working for foreign news agencies is not a new problem. Back in 2004, The New York Times‘s news assistant Zhao Yan was imprisoned for three years. In 2011, one Chinese news assistant, in a guest blog for CPJ, wrote about the perilous situation of this group and urged the international community to pay more attention to the pressures they face.

In the past week I have conducted an email exchange with a news assistant who described several interactions with agents from the Ministry of State Security over the past couple of years and the self-protective measures that the news assistant has developed in the process. The journalist agreed to allow me to report our exchange under the condition that I not reveal his or her identity. Here are parts of our exchange, which I’ve edited for a more concise presentation:

On security:

First of all, communication security. I can’t emphasize this more. For sensitive issues, don’t use domestic email and messaging services or those of foreign companies that are willing to give away user information to the Chinese government in exchange for doing business in China.

From my experience, the security people can’t know everything and can’t always piece things together. Some things they know, and some they don’t. It’s always good to take extra steps to make sure your communications are secure.

The police have also asked for my email account and password. I gave them one that I no longer used. Sometimes, you have to give them something, so it’s always good to use different email accounts and online social media IDs.

On dealing with your foreign employer:

It’s also important to pressure the news organization you work for to be more security-conscious. The organization I’m working for used to not care so much about security. It was not until I was summoned to meet the police that they started to use more secure channels to communicate with me.

Some typical interchanges:

The security people always use the “threat and bribe” strategy– “if you cooperate, then you will…if you don’t, then you will…” Don’t take the bait.

The agents told me, “You have possibly violated the Counterespionage Law. If you don’t work with us, things can go really bad. But if you work with us, we will protect you.” My response: “Yes, I would like to help and I don’t want to be jailed, but I don’t have any information.”

“You must have known something, otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to write this stuff.” The agents pointed at a stash of my online articles they printed out.

“I don’t really know about politics and am not interested. I write articles to make a living. I collect commentaries I find online. It’s easy,” I answered.

“You said these are other people’s commentaries. Who are those people? What online IDs are badmouthing the government?” “How can I remember? My Weibo account gets removed so frequently. I don’t have a steady group of online friends and I don’t know their names. Please look at the dates of the articles you printed. They are several months old. If I ask you right now what you had for dinner a month ago, would you remember?”

These kinds of questions can go on and go. Be polite, but you don’t have to fully disclose. Throw the questions back at them.

On questions about other journalists and dissidents:

Besides wanting to know about you, they usually want to get information about other journalists and dissidents from you: “What’s your relation with W [a journalist CPJ has reported on]?” “I follow him on Weibo. I don’t know him personally.”

“As far as we know, it was him that recommended you to this media outlet. What’s his relation with the organization?” “I think maybe because W thought I had potential so he wanted to give me this opportunity. W doesn’t have any relation with the organization. Maybe the editor thinks highly of him and thus asked for his opinion.”

Initially claiming you don’t really know and you don’t quite remember is usually a good thing to do.

“I am not in the dissident circle. I don’t know anything about them,” I told the agents. “You can break into their circle to know about them.” They wanted to make me an informant. I refused, saying that dissidents wouldn’t trust me.

On “Letters of promise”:

What marks the end of a round of interrogations or, in the agents’ words, “chats,” is often a “letter of promise.”

After I told them “I won’t write it. I don’t know what you want me to promise,” the agents insisted that I promise three things. First, not to post negative things on social media and not to write articles for foreign media outlets. Second, to keep the whole interrogation secret, not discussing it with anyone online or offline. And third, that whatever I told them is true. I wrote down what they wanted. I wanted to take a photo of the letter but they refused.

On speaking with CPJ:

I’ve often said, I hope there are articles and books available to provide guidance in terms of what to do if one is interrogated by the Chinese police in situations like mine. It’s also useful to share one’s interrogation experience with others, so we can all be more informed and prepared. If we share these sorts of tactics and experience, the next time we are sitting in a windowless room, facing two hard-nosed agents, we are more at ease.

And always remember, you are not alone.