Over the past couple of days, I — as TIME’s Beijing bureau chief — and other members of the foreign-journalist corps in China have been asked if we self-censor to placate the Chinese government, lest we hurt our chances of getting our visas renewed. The question stems from two pieces of news: first, that Bloomberg may have killed an investigation into the cozy nexus of power and politics in China to satisfy the Chinese government, and second, that all the China-based journalists of the New York Times and Bloomberg have so far not been given a chance to renew their annual visas even as the expiration of their documents looms.
How new is this type of intimidation by the Chinese government — and does it work? I can’t speak for every foreign reporter in Beijing, but here’s my perspective and a bit of context.
I have gotten journalistic visas to cover China for almost all of the period since 2000. Compared with the turn of this century, I’d say the business of reporting in China has gotten much simpler. It is far easier to report in the countryside without running foul of local officials. (By foul I mean everything from getting detained to having the person you were talking to jailed, both of which I’ve experienced.)
However, compared with five years ago, when the Chinese leadership promised to ease restrictions on foreign journalists as part of reforms unveiled during the Beijing Olympics charm campaign, the atmosphere has clearly chilled. The simple answer to why this has happened is that it could. In the run-up to the 2008 Games, the Chinese government wanted good press. By and large, they got it. At the Beijing Olympics, the world’s media showcased a modernizing, incipient superpower flexing its muscle.
Today, as social tensions multiply in China, precisely as social media proliferate, controlling the flow of bad news is a much more onerous task. When the New York Times runs an excellent series examining the hidden wealth of the Communist Party elite, it disrupts a carefully constructed narrative sanctioned by the Communist Party. But what can the world do to dissuade the Chinese government from harassing a few foreign journalists? China is now the world’s second largest economy. It has to please no more.
That doesn’t mean that the kind of intimidation that has happened over the past couple of years — visa hassles, intimidation of sources, even the odd beating of a foreign correspondent — are anything new. These are things that have flared up on and off since I’ve been covering China. There is, however, one notable difference. Previously, individual journalists have been punished for their enterprising reporting. This year, entire news bureaus from specific publications are being pursued.
Does this mean, though, that an outbreak of self-censorship has struck the foreign media in China? Yes, there probably are some journalists sufficiently worried enough about the year-end visa process to tone down their coverage. But it is an insult to those of us doing our jobs in China to assume that we’ve suddenly taped our mouths shut.
Being a foreign correspondent is a strange job. You’re tasked with trying to interpret an entire culture and set it in context, even as it shifts in utterly unexpected ways. Having your phones tapped or your e-mail account hacked or your Chinese staff questioned by state-security agents — all of which have happened to me and many of my foreign-media peers — doesn’t make this process of interpretation any easier. But we do it, because China is a fascinating, constantly evolving country of 1.3 billion people whose futures are entwined with ours. China matters. The fate of my Chinese friends, be they rich businessmen or human-rights dissidents, has a bearing on how the world will conduct itself in the coming years.
As foreign correspondents, we have to renew our visas toward the end of every year. The process can be nerve-racking. Last year, my visa was processed with little more than an admonishment by a Public Security Bureau official that I’d used the wrong kind of pen to fill out my forms. (There’s always some hitch.) The year before that, however, I was only able to renew my visa on Dec. 31 — the very day that it expired. I was pretty sure I’d eventually get permission to stay in Beijing. But it didn’t make the last-minute process any more pleasant. My kids were in school. Should I tell them there was a chance they wouldn’t be returning the next semester? What about my rent? And my dog?
Two years ago, I displeased the Chinese Foreign Ministry by writing about the self-immolations of Tibetans and by sneaking into a region that was supposedly off-limits to foreign journalists. When I began my visa-renewal process, I was funneled into a bureaucratic dead end — the person handling my case was always too busy or out of town (even when in town, the same day, for others). The days ticked by. Finally, I was given a lecture about how I supposedly misunderstood some basic tenets of Tibetan Buddhism. I smiled and took it. It seemed an acceptable price to pay for another year in China.
Besides, a religious primer was less humiliating than my experience in Shanghai during the height of 2003’s SARS epidemic. Then, the Foreign Ministry called in a Chinese journalism professor to deliver many hours of lectures to me on media ethics. They had reviewed my CV and discovered that I had never attended journalism school. This academic deficiency, I was told, must have accounted for my bullheaded attempts to uncover SARS cases in Shanghai, even as the local government pretended none existed.
Incidentally, I have not yet renewed my visa for next year. That isn’t stopping me from writing about sensitive topics or looking specifically at the insidious way in which Chinese authorities hope to dictate coverage through controlling the visa process. I expect to get my visa when I return to China later this month from leave in New York City, and haven’t been given any indication that there will be a problem.
What will happen with the New York Times and Bloomberg journalists isn’t clear. Perhaps they will get their visas at the last possible moment, or perhaps even the urging by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on their behalf last week in Beijing won’t be enough. And it’s already too late for other Western journalists, from Reuters and al-Jazeera, whose visas have already been either refused or allowed to expire. Separately, other journalists who have applied for their initial visas to begin their jobs have been kept waiting for an answer for months.
The situation isn’t pleasant. Already, the epic air pollution in Beijing, as well as a perceived hardening by the Chinese government toward the foreign business community, has caused many expats to flee. Among foreigners, 2013 has been the year of good-bye parties. When I left Beijing on Sunday, I joked with friends that I might not see them back in China. But it wasn’t that funny.
Of course, none of this uncertainty compares with the difficulties of being a Chinese journalist in China. The worst that can happen to someone like me, probably, is being kicked out of a country that I have spent two decades studying and covering. Chinese reporters, however, can end up in jail for what they do. (They are not assassinated, as happens in places like Russia, so I suppose it could be worse.) I have had Chinese assistants beaten up for helping me — suffering the worst kind of wounds that don’t manifest themselves with outward bruises but cause intense internal pain.
That, to me, is a kind of metaphor for the way in which the Chinese government, even under a proud new President, clings to its repressive ways, showing a smooth, undamaged exterior even as troubles roil beneath the surface. The Chinese people, despite being limited by censored domestic media and blocked foreign news websites, can sense these social wounds, especially now that slowing economic growth is failing to mask social tensions. It’s not just foreign journalists in China who are hungry to know more.