The case of Li Xin, a journalist who disappeared in Thailand in January after telling the international press in November he had fled China after being forced to work for years as a government informant, has shed light on the pressures some journalists face to provide information to the authorities.
Li, the opinions editor for the website edition of Southern Metropolis, a Guangzhou-based liberal-leaning newspaper, told reporters he was also an informant for the State Security Department in Henan province. Alongside editing and publishing critical commentaries on Chinese society and politics, Li said he had been reporting to security agents on the activities of public intellectuals, human rights activists, and non-governmental organizations.
Li fled to India in October but when his application for asylum there failed, he went to Thailand, according to reports. The former journalist was last heard from on January 11, and his wife told the U.K. paper The Guardian she fears he could have been abducted and taken back to mainland China, where she says authorities have threatened to arrest him. Neither the authorities nor the Southern Metropolis have commented publicly on Li’s claims that he was an informant or his disappearance.
Before his disappearance, Li told The Associated Press, “I believe there are many people like me who are working on behalf of the authoritarian government.”
CPJ asked three journalists if they agreed with Li’s comment, and about their own experiences with China’s security apparatus. CPJ was not able to independently verify their accounts.
Zhang Ping, known by his pen name Chang Ping, is a former editor of the Southern Media Group based in Guangdong province. Zhang, who told the foreign press in 2011 he was forced to resign from the state-owned media conglomerate over his candid commentaries, now lives in Germany where he is a columnist for the Chinese website of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
CPJ: You held high editorial positions at the Southern Media Group. During your time with the group, were you aware of cases of your colleagues being informants?
Zhang: It’s very common. Those who told me that they were informants were the ones who felt troubled by it. There must be many who were informants, but did not tell me. The journalists were “invited to drink tea” [a euphemism for being summoned for questioning] and provide the police with information about the media group, including information about me.
[The journalists] asked me for advice. I suggested to them that they change job. Some of the journalists took my advice and left the company. I also know of journalists being informants at other newspapers. In one newspaper, one journalist’s being an informant was known to everyone. We even joked about this with him.
There are many kinds of informants. Most do not bear as much pressure as Li Xin does. They usually just drink tea with the police, literally, and tell the police information that they think is OK to tell. The police, on the other hand, often say things like, “It’s just our job to ask questions,” and say they just want the journalist’s cooperation.
About 10 years ago, I knew many [Chinese] news assistants for international media outlets in China. I remember almost everyone had to “drink tea” and provide intelligence about the foreign media they were working for. I’m not sure what the situation is right now. For many of those, they knew being a news assistant was only temporary. Therefore, their idea was, “just endure it and it will pass.”
Zhao Sile is a mainland-based freelance journalist and columnist for Oriental Net, a news website owned by the pro-Beijing Hong Kong media group, Oriental Press.
CPJ: You are an emerging independent journalist in China. Have the police ever asked you to provide information about your sources?
Zhao: Yes, when I was in Taiwan in 2011 reporting on the Taiwan presidential election for iSun Affairs, [a now-defunct weekly that was known for its outspoken reporting.] It was probably because I had written about the grassroots campaign activities of [the pro-independence] Democratic Progressive Party. The state security bureau might have thought I could provide useful information to them.
An agent from the bureau reached out to me online. I was still in college at that time. The agent implied that if I did not give them information, I would not be able to graduate. He asked me to write articles about Taiwan as “internal reference reports.” It was 300 yuan (US$45) per article. At that time, I had no idea that it was a typical way of them making you an informant. After I wrote one article for them, the agent kept pressing me to give them inside information about the Democratic Progressive Party. I felt increasingly uneasy about it.
After that, I introduced the agent to one of my classmates who seemed to be interested in doing that kind of work. Since then, the agent has stopped bothering me. The classmate and I had been good friends. What surprised me and made me very sad was that later the classmate confessed to me that he had been supplying information about me to the agent, such as where I went and who I met.
I have had several friends tell me about being forced to be informants. The police would threaten them with the loss of their jobs or the publications they were trying to start. The friends used all kinds of methods to try to dodge this work. For example, only sending the police information that is already public.
Wen Yunchao, a New York-based blogger and freedom of speech advocate, is a former editor of the privately owned Chinese news website, Netease.
CPJ: Since 2010 you have been based in Hong Kong and the U.S. Has the Chinese government tried to make you an informant since you moved from the mainland?
Wen: In December 2009, after a series of events including an environmental protest [Wen participated in], the police ransacked my home and told me I was no longer allowed to leave the country. I had a trip scheduled in June 2010 to the U.S., so I volunteered to meet with the police to discuss my leaving the country. They forced me to write a “letter of promise” [a formal statement authorities force activists and others to sign.] One of the things I had to promise was to “actively assist their United Front work,” which is basically saying, provide them with information about groups not affiliated with the Communist Party while I am outside mainland China. If I did not write that letter, I am certain I would have been prohibited from leaving the country. Since leaving, I have never provided them with any information.