Foreign Correspondents in China Do Not Censor Themselves to Get Visas

Let's just clear up that little misunderstanding, shall we?

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Mark Ralston / AFP / GettyImages

Hospital security prepare to evict reporters trying to see blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng at the Chaoyang Hospital where Chen is receiving treatment, in Beijing on May 2, 2012

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.

29 comments
ChasL
ChasL

There are actually a lot of inaccurate stories, half truth, twist of facts coming from all these activist journalists living in the foreign press club bubble. Here are few more examples NYT has never followed up or amended/retracted:

- Andrew Jacobs exaggerated some street sweep in Beijing into "China banning jasmine flower". I mean come on, jasmine is a hundred million dollar commodity in China, banning it overnight is not possible.

- How about the Google hacking story NYT did? Their supposedly "China code" in the malware turned out to be the Nibble CRC algorihm that's been around for decades, according to Dan Goodin of The Register.

- NYT then followed up with more hacking indictment, this time fingering Jinan Lanxiang Vocation School as some sort of millitary hacker central with a mysterious Ukrainian professor. The accusation was so outlandish, the Chinese netters created the meme "Lanxiang is more awesome than Harvard".

How about the Time? Remember the Zhengzhou New District ghost city story you guys did? After Google Maps finally ordered new satillite scan of the area, suddenly there are lots of cars and people. But Time never followed up, instead allowing the false "ghost city" story to stand uncorrected.

ChasL
ChasL

Ms. Beech, please google who Qi Chonghuai is, perhaps then you'll understand why China is scrutinizing western reporters.

NTY touted Qi as some "anti-corruption champion", but in reality the guy was a convicted child molester running an extortion racket under the guise of "investigative journalism". To date NYT has not amended or retracted its story.

If Chinese journalists behaved this way in America, they too would be kicked out.

duduong
duduong

Ms. Beech, we know you don't censor yourself for Chinese people's feelings, and that is fine, but it would be nice if you could once in a while apply the filter of fairness, truthfulness and common sense.

Wangdaming
Wangdaming

Great! that's what we experienced during applying US Visa.

thereo
thereo

These days, you don't have to be an expert in writing, printing articles online. All you have to do is "Have an Agenda".


1. First print something BAD about China.

2. Don't care what online commenters said. Some will give shi t, some will not give a damn.

3. Wait for a few more weeks.

4. Write another article BAD about China.

5. Go to step 2 and 3. 


6. Repeat Step 1 to 5 several times.


7. After a decade, your mission has been achieved. China is bad. Communist is bad. Chinese people are bad. 


8. Meanwhile, all those activities, CIA, NSA will pay funding for Time magazine, Washington post, NYT. Of course they don't fund you DIRECTLY. There are channels that will support your subscription, fund your writers who could write anything BAD about China.


Isn't it right, Ms Hannah Beech?


Of course, you're not alone. There are thousands of those journalists, picking up their Videocam, Microphones, go to China, ask any pedestrians anything BAD about China, smog, corruption, in the names of Journalists ethics is to dig up the truth and show the world, while free-riding cheap products made in CHINA.


And I believe my comment here will serve as a spec of noise from someone who just don't like reading those media from the Western. 

fankela
fankela

"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.)"

It seems to me that you wasted your ten years in China, and you know little about China. Ask the first Chinese you see in street and check if he/she experienced any problems when they were dealing with government employees. Do you want to be a "Yang Da Ren" (洋大人)?


Of course, this could also be part of your expertise of twisting things: This happened to me, and I'm a foreign journalist, so they are targeting foreign journalists. Most of your readers, who subconsciously assume everyone else in China is not treated this way, will readily believe what you want them to believe.

You guys have done tons of this type of "twisting". Let me make up an example to give people some idea: A cop unfair treated a Uighur/Tibetan (which could be true), and that means the government discriminates Uighurs/Tibertans (because cops in China are angels, and they never unfair treat anyone).


Many foreign journalists are great, but many others are simply a bunch of spin doctors, coming to China with a plan to find faults and tell Chinese what to do.

FayeFaye
FayeFaye

Those journalists are Professional LIARS and should be ousted from China.

wobushilizhe
wobushilizhe

As Chinese, I suggest the author that he should have a basic knowledge about Chinese history, then he will understand many things

ChinaLee
ChinaLee

China's decision not to renew the visas of the journalists is understandable.

If the journalists had dug up information and published articles on the wealth and financial dealings of Russia's Putin or Saudi Arabia's royal family, the reaction would have been the same.

It is obvious that the journalists were attempting to discredit the Chinese government. If a similar attempt had been made to discredit another government, such as digging up dirt on Thailand's royal family (which happens to have a Lese-Majeste law), then the journalists would also have been expelled.

The majority of countries do not have unlimited press freedom. It might be wise to be aware of their sensitivities.

Eafai
Eafai

the visa hassles happened recently is not surprised to me. Beijing is experiencing an epic political crisis recently, because of the case of Zhou Yongkang. A even bigger political turbulence is expected in 2014. It is quite reasonable that the government suddenly tighten their control on media. I can not believe that the chief of Time's Beijing Bureau does not have this political sensitiveness after twenty years' work in China ! I truly doubted his expertise.

BTW, the New York times really worth the punishment ! the report concerning Chinese leaders' hidden wealth is a total conspiracy ! At the time of the report leased, Chinese leaders who support the reform were fighting with their conservative counterparts. the New York Time's report is aimed at Chinese innovative leaders and caused a huge loss of the reformists. This report caused an inestimable loss to Chinese reform ! It is still quite arguable whether the report is true, even if the report was telling the truth, it is still a big question why all the reports in this kind were aimed at Chinese reformists. I am so angry with the damages western journalists caused to China due to their ignorance about this country !

Unlike US and other western countries, China is a country which can not stand certain truth. Because some truth may bring nothing but riots or even wars to China,  which are the last things people want.  

Mohamed Elzeftawy
Mohamed Elzeftawy

كنت اتمنى من التايم ترجمه للاخبار لانى من عشاق التايم وشكرا

jefforsythe9
jefforsythe9

Western journalists are more afraid of losing their jobs by being fired by their bosses for telling the truth concerning the brutality of the blood-thirsty Chinese Communist Party. All the media in the West are well aware that all their sponsors are in bed financially with the heinous CCP and who cares if the evil Party has murdderd over fifty million of its own people since 1949 and who cares if the cruel CCP is attempting the genocidr of tens of millions of innocent Falun Gong who live in Mainland China. As long as business as usual is maintained, why show the American public the disgusting truth concenring the heinous CCP. This is my understanding. The U.N. itself just gave the CCP a seat on its Human Rights Council. Interesting considering that there are no human rights whatsoever in Red China. A friend of mine once explained it well to me. If you see an article in the news that you do not understand, just put a big dollar sign over the article and everything will become much clearer.

Fanny Potkin
Fanny Potkin

Rather ironically, the photo Time chose is of Andrea Yu, a foreign faux-journalist, known for mostly asking softball questions at CCP . She works for a media company, which is controlled through Beijing, and has specifically said in interviews that she asks " safe questions pre-written by her Chinese colleagues". Not to criticize Ms. Yu, but hardly a shining example of hard-hitting journalism and definitely not the best choice to illustrate an article on how china correspondents don't censor themselves. TIME should be more careful with its photo selection.

Farhan Ansari
Farhan Ansari

censorships also takes place in USA media never talks about the Zion domination in the US

Viet Tran
Viet Tran

wow. I'm sorry to read your story. Unbelievable how the Communist Party has suppressed you and all journalists in China. One thing I can advise is you should not work in communist countries and don't do your job in Vietnam. The secret police will kidnap and kill you!! Good luck with your journey!

Gaurav GK
Gaurav GK

www.facebook.com/photogrv022 Hi, please like & share my page. I need the support all of you. Thnx

Banga Baru
Banga Baru

censorship! censorship! all started with it and still expect to censored!...what stake u people still holds in my life...users!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Juan Carlo Aquino Banayo
Juan Carlo Aquino Banayo

Chinese Leadership acts like NAZIS, this is how they control the media and the truth. Anonymous and other non-censoring hacktivists should strip out the firewall of China and attack those who block the truth. This is not all about likes, this is about the generation we currently in are we still capable of bringing the truth in its light to the world? No matter what the cost? just like our grandfathers who fought for the truth against Nazism, Socialism and expansion of Japanese Empire (which is now China). We should know the truth especially about the expansionism of China and its corruption (Are they really capable of world leadership or just a smog of lies using the power of censorship?)

Noe Noe
Noe Noe

I'm just gonna like it..lol

Troy More
Troy More

It's not the conduct of your reporters that is a danger to your image. It's the way your Facebook posts are mostly trivial rubbish that does. Time is much higher calibre than the drivel that often gets posted here would imply. You are/were an icon of journalism. Don't throw that away in the desperate need of "Likes".

bossel
bossel

@ChasL "a lot of inaccurate stories, half truth, twist of facts"

Talking of yourself, are you? 

E.g. the NYT did not write that "China [was] banning jasmine flower[s]", but that "the police issued an open-ended jasmine ban at a number of retail and wholesale flower markets around Beijing"


The police in Beijing is not China (not even Beijing). I hope, you know that. Or are you just a little wumao from Beijing who can't see further than the city limits?


I suppose, your other "examples" are similarly flawed, so, since I have better things to do, I won't look into it.

 

hellomcmc
hellomcmc

@thereo You are very rare western people who is not ignorant and not be misleaded by the so called 'free' western media.   

Joe.Blough
Joe.Blough

@ChinaLee "It is obvious that the journalists were attempting to discredit the Chinese government."


The Chinese gov't discredits itself. It may someday become a great country like it was, at times, in its illustrious history...but not yet. It still has a LOT of work to do.

Wangdaming
Wangdaming

Yes, leave china! Stay away from China, you are not welcome.

posthuman1
posthuman1

Do you know where is NAZIS from originally? 

ChasL
ChasL

@bossel Andrew Jacob's article was titled "Catching Scent of Revolution, China Moves to Snip Jasmine". Are you saying Jacobs was wrong by not saying Beijing, but China?

I rest my case on your supposition. Seems you are too lazy to look up the new Google map image of Zhengzhou New District, or look up Qi Chonghuai's 1986 child rape conviction document by Googling his name.

As to your "wumao from Beijing" McCarthyist accusation, I'd like to see you back it up with some proof. I'm in Seattle, super unleaded is over $4 a gallon. I'll be damned if I don't get at least 50 dollars a post to make it worth my while.

BTW, I'm American, ain't never been citizen of the PRC a day in my life.