A picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen behind People's Liberation Army soldiers in Beijing on August 22, 2015. (Reuters/Damir Sagolj)
A picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen behind People's Liberation Army soldiers in Beijing on August 22, 2015. (Reuters/Damir Sagolj)

In China, more journalists–even former ones–vulnerable to government wrath

Most of the journalists imprisoned in China reported or commented on issues that the Chinese government finds threatening to its rule. They were likely aware that their work could invoke the wrath of the Chinese Communist Party at any time, but still choose to go ahead for the sake of truth and the public interest. Other journalists choose to stay away from the political red lines, writing and speaking within the realm of what is believed to be allowed–and they have generally been spared persecution. However, such certainty has increasingly eroded. Since Xi Jinping assumed the presidency in 2013, more and more journalists are vulnerable.

One recent example concerns Wujie News. On March 4, an open letter criticizing Xi for concentrating power in his own hands and calling for him to resign was published on the news website–a joint venture between private companies and the government of the Xinjiang region in northwest China. The letter was removed soon after it was posted and it received scant attention in the tightly-censored local media and Chinese Internet. Yet, in the wake of such critical material appearing on a partially government-owned website, authorities launched a broad operation to determine who was behind the offense, affecting former as well as current employees of Wujie News.

In the ensuing days, over a dozen people disappeared or were detained, including family members of two journalists based overseas, out of the government’s reach. Most of those detained have been released, but at least three senior managers at Wujie News are still in police custody, according to news reports and a former journalist for the website who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. Around April, the government also ordered Wujie News to be dissolved, and everyone was let go, according to news reports. (CPJ was unable to access the website). What’s more, nearly 150 people–all employees of Wujie and its affiliate technology company Wujie-Xinhui, as well a number of former employees who had left Wujie News before the letter was published–have been banned from leaving the mainland, according to the former journalist.

“About two months ago, I went to the Beijing Capital Airport, planning to go to a foreign country on a tourist visa. I was stopped by the border police and told that ‘we have received notice. The Beijing Public Security Bureau prohibits you from leaving the country because you have a case pending,'” the former journalist told CPJ. “I asked what the case was, when the travel ban would be lifted, who should compensate the lost value of my plane ticket. The police could not answer any of the questions.”

The former journalist told CPJ that many former colleagues have encountered the same problem: “We first found out about the travel ban on March 28 when an international correspondent was stopped at the airport. Later, my former colleagues who tried to go abroad to claim awards, to go on vacation, to participate in exchange programs, have all been prohibited from leaving mainland China. No one knows when the travel ban started or when it will end.” Wujie News‘s former general manager confirmed that all previous employees are banned from traveling, according to the former journalist. CPJ was unable to reach the general manager directly. The employees sent several applications to the Beijing police requesting the travel ban be lifted but have not received a response, the former journalist said.

A police officer at the Beijing Public Security Bureau told CPJ over the phone that he did not have information regarding the travel ban. The officer also questioned the work of CPJ, referring to it as part of “American hegemonic power” that tries to “interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

The former journalist expressed surprised at being caught up in the world of political dissent. “I had not thought this was a big deal because I had no experience in such things. When I realized that I was banned from leaving the country and the company was facing dissolution, I became very very angry. I am not angry at whoever published the letter, nor the management of Wujie News, but the all-powerful state,” the former journalist said. “Just as the saying goes–even if you don’t go after politics, politics will come after you.”

You could say that veteran journalist Gao Yu “went after politics.” Before she was jailed in May 2014 on accusations of leaking state secrets and was paraded on state TV appearing to confess without having been tried, Gao knew the risk when she continuously published articles critical of the Chinese government on news outlets based overseas. Gao had no illusion about the authoritarian nature of the state or that China’s press environment would change for the better, as she told CPJ in 2008. Gao learned this from hard personal experience, having been jailed previously for five years for leaking state secrets and for 15 months for participating in the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests.

But business reporter Wang Xiaolu, who also appeared on state TV making a confession in August 2015, may not have expected to be in such a position. He was not known for critical reporting, and the article for which he was held in an undisclosed location for six months–about a regulator examining ways for securities companies to withdraw funds from the stock market–was not on a topic traditionally considered delicate. (If it were, it would not have been published in a mainstream magazine, given how stringently print media in China is controlled). Yet, as China’s economic growth slows and its markets become more volatile, reporting on financial issues has taken on new sensitivity.

In a similar situation is blogger Wei Manyi, who has been detained since May 17 over an article he published on the Chinese social media service WeChat saying Buddhist temples were linked to allegedly corrupt businessmen. Reading through Wei’s previous articles online, CPJ did not find them to be overtly critical of the Chinese government. In fact, some were passionately nationalistic and in praise of the Communist Party. Titles of his articles include “China will inevitably lead the world in the next 20 years;” “From revolution to violent revolt, the Western world is collapsing,” and “GDP growth hits record low, but China is due for the best era.”

Zhang Ping, a Germany-based journalist whose family members in China were detained for several days in connection to the open letter on Wujie News, told CPJ that he believed that in a country where press freedom is not guaranteed, no journalist, regardless whether one reports critically of the government or not, is truly safe. “Though journalists have different beats, be they entertainment reporters or financial reporters, we should all speak for free speech, information freedom, and social justice. We can only be safe through fighting for such rights and causes as a whole.”