Why is China Still Messing with the Foreign Press?

A ChinaFile Conversation

To those raised in the Marxist tradition, nothing in the media happens by accident.  In China, the flagship newspapers are still the “throat and tongue” of the ruling party, and their work is directed by the Party’s Propaganda Department.  That’s the first reason why Chinese cybersnoops dug into the Times’ servers—to find out who had ordered a political attack on China’s premier and for what purpose.

Alexander F. Yuan—AFP/Getty Images
China’s President Xi Jinping viewed through a gap between a TV cameraman and his camera at the Boao Forum for Asia on the resort island of Hainan, April 8, 2013. Media reports, including investigations into Xi’s family wealth, have caused an official Chinese backlash against their foreign publishers.

The second reason is that China’s leaders, raised in a culture of extreme secrecy, cannot believe that a story like this could have been written on the basis of green-eyeshade sleuthing in public records. If unauthorized information about Chinese leaders comes out, it is normally the result of political infighting that generates leaks and rumors.  (That’s how the Bo Xilai scandal broke, as detailed in a scathing new book A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel, by Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang.)  The spies were directed to find out who gave Times reporter David Barboza the secrets he published and why.

A senior Chinese whose job it is to gather intelligence asked me both of these questions—why did the Times attack the premier and who gave them the information—and was incredulous when I answered that the wealth of Wen’s wife had been widely known for years, and this was a story just waiting to be written by a reporter with the skills to get the facts.  He must have thought I was either naive or a liar.  Such is the paranoia of the Chinese political class.

Let’s also give kudos to the Bloomberg news team who broke the story of the Xi Jinping family's wealth even before the Times did the Wen story, and who also wrote a terrific story on the wealth of the third generation of Party aristocrats.  Chinese cyberspies broke into the Bloomberg servers too, no doubt looking for the non-existent answers to the same ill-informed questions.—Andrew Nathan


I wouldn’t dream of arguing with Andy on this one. I just wanted to illustrate his point about the Chinese suspicion that any reporting on a politician is politically inspired, rather than just being what reporters do.  The phenomenon is well illustrated by the back story of one brave attempt to expose Bo Xilai’s behavior—a sad case of premature reporting. It’s widely understood that Bo’s downfall was a political affair, and that much of the information released in the scandal came from his powerful enemies in China.  

This is in no way to downplay the efforts of all the reporters who covered the story, but to remind us of what happened to a reporter guilty of attempting to expose Bo’s corruption many years before. The reporter was Jiang Weiping, former bureau chief for northeast China for the Hong Kong paper Wenhui Bao, who, starting as far back as 1998, wrote a series of exposés of sex and corruption scandals in the northeast, involving several characters who were to become globally notorious a full fifteen years later. One was headlined The Citizens of Dalian Cry to Heaven under the Autocratic Rule of Bo Xilai; another, Deputy Mayor of Shenyang Gambles Away 40 Million Yuan in Macau.  Others detailed the familiar stories of collections of mistresses, concealment of crime and corruption and so on. (I am indebted for these details to the reports on China’s media written by He Qinglian for these details)

He published his articles under a pseudonym in various Hong Kong papers, but he himself was a Chinese citizen, and when, in 1999, the paper was told to move its bureau from Shenyang to Dalian, he had to resign. He was arrested in December 2000 and tried on January 25, 2002, on charges of “illegally providing state secrets abroad,” “incitement to subvert state power,” and “illegally possessing state secrets.”  He was sentenced to eight years in prison with a further five years deprivation of political rights.    

It would be comforting to think that, now everything that Mr. Jiang wrote about Bo Xilai has been vindicated by the official accusations against him, he might get an apology.  Unfortunately, the precedents are not promising: Ma Xiangdong, the deputy mayor of Shenyang who had lost 40 million RMB in the casinos of Macau was subsequently arrested. He was executed in 2001 for his gambling habit.  (Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, of course, who confessed to the murder of Neil Heywood last year, was given a suspended death sentence.) Being right about Ma Xiangdong—and all the others—did not help Mr Jiang: he stayed in prison until 2006. He later emigrated to Canada where I understand that he is—finally—writing a biography of Bo Xilai.   

Isabel’s absolutely right to raise the fact that it is Chinese reporters and, I would add, news assistants in foreign news bureaus, who are far more “messed with” by authorities. We foreign reporters all owe them a debt of gratitude for their courage and, often, tremendous generosity with their sources, information and willingness to teach us about what might actually be going on when the tea leaves look a bit muddled to our outsiders’ eyes. 

Last October, I left China after eight years working as a freelance reporter based in Beijing. Back in New York, I don’t miss the simmering worry my wife, also a reporter, and I endured just to do our jobs. When each December rolled around, we wondered if we’d get our journalists visas renewed or have to pack up and leave. Had we been careful not to compromise a Chinese source requesting anonymity who might get into serious trouble if discovered speaking with foreign reporters? We lived with it, got used to it even, but always thought twice when talking about stories in our own apartment (was it bugged?) or when out reporting, not wanting to end up scaring our young daughter with a call to say we weren’t sure when we’d be home. In the end, we skated through our life as reporters in China relatively unscathed in comparison with the real woes experienced by colleagues, friends and neighbors, some of whom actually were detained numerous times, physically harassed by police or plainclothes public security, or eventually expelled or denied working visas. All of this did little to engender warm feelings about living in China, a country in which we otherwise loved life.

But that simmering worry was inescapable, as I sometimes reported on China’s relationship with the foreign press—a navel-gazing exercise that often took what struck me as small but surreal turns. Late in 2011, while writing for Agence France Presse, I bicycled out to buy a copy of Newsweek, one of many American magazines whose sale, to this day, is restricted to shops in luxury hotels not frequented by the average Chinese citizen. The issue I was after was supposed to contain an essay by Ai Weiwei in which the dissident artist compared life without freedom of expression in Beijing to living in a prison. His offending words, while widely available online, had been cut carefully from the magazine. An entire page was missing, sliced out, as if with a razor blade by hand, a sliver edge left behind. I called the Beijing distributor and got no explanation. The kiosk manager was unable to comment. It wasn’t clear who’d cut the page out of each of the thousands of issues that landed in China’s capital that day, and nobody could, or would, say why. I’d heard about this sort old school censorship from older journalist friends who’d worked in the former Soviet Union, but in 21st century China, it was almost laughable to me. Weren’t censors too busy deleting microblog posts reaching hundreds of millions of people to be bothered with a few thousand issues of a magazine distributed, in English only, to exclusive hotel shops? Wasn’t it too paranoid to be concerned with the hotels’ well-to-do clientele—either foreigners or wealthy Chinese who’d traveled abroad and thus already gained awareness that a freer press existed outside China’s borders? Apparently not.

But still, the censorship of the foreign press goes on down to that miniscule level.  Yes, the web sites of Bloomberg and the New York Times are blocked, but so, too, are individual pages of scantly distributed magazines being hand cut and tossed to the censor’s office floor. For instance, Orville Schell’s April 1 essay in TIME (link in Chinese and English), comparing the recent leadership successions of China and The Vatican, was torn from copies of the magazine distributed in Beijing. Meanwhile, Orville can go to lunch with the Americas editor of the China Daily here in New York and pick up a copy of his state-run newspaper from a box on many a Manhattan street corner.  All this is to say that I believe strongly that no matter how much China messes with the foreign press, I think the United States should never stoop to the level of blocking distribution of news from China or anywhere else.  Let readers decide.

An added thought on the U.S.-China media divide, which now threatens to grow wider even between The New York Times and Beijing: This is a potentially very toxic divide that involves not just one newspaper, but the totality of the foreign press working in China. Add to it the Bloomberg effort, and you have the beginnings of a dangerous stand-off as potentially divisive as the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, and one that could impede better U.S.-China relations.

So, is there a remedy?

It strikes me that, just as we have behind the scenes, off-the-record discussions on a host of bi-lateral problems from North Korea to trade, it is time we had such a bi-lateral caucus between media stakeholders in both the U.S. and China. Whoever is right or wrong, the alienation of the foreign media from a story as large and significant as China, is no trifling matter. It seems to me that, especially in our new globalized world, we have reached a point where it is not enough to just wait the bad blood out. Some new, and high-level discussions between media players is long overdue.

I agree with Orville that alienating the foreign press is no trifling thing. China needs friends who will help persuade the world that the country is on a positive path. But finding a solution will be tough: as long as the Chinese system is based on a paranoid Communist Party that, as Andy Nathan describes, believes that the role of the media is “propaganda” as opposed to being a watchdog, the government will view the foreign press as an essentially hostile force.

This whole conversation brings me back to the late 1980s, when I was covering China for Newsweek. Like Jonathan, we dealt with constant paranoia, worrying about our Chinese friends and sources. It seems hilarious now that I used to go crawling around the compounds of semi-official intellectuals under cover of darkness, hoping that no one would spot my blonde hair when I went to see a source who might give me some tiny glimpse of what was really going on in the behind-the-scenes power struggle. They were the ones who explained the high-stakes battle between conservative Maoists and more liberal leaders who were interested in rule of law and separation of powers between the government and the Communist Party (a “radical” idea put forth by Party Chief Zhao Ziyang and his reformist advisors.)

By the time my husband and I left Beijing in the spring of 1990, a year after the crackdown on the student movement, we were so embittered that we had totally lost our objectivity. Our Chinese friends and sources, to a person patriots who hoped for a better day for China, had either left the country or hidden their dreams away. For an entire year, every time we drove out of our compound, two motorcycles appeared behind us—security goons interested in seeing who our friends were. Needless to say, we never visited any of them.

After China, we moved to Moscow, another country where rule of law took a back seat to money and power. The press was relatively free by then, and we didn’t worry about KGB officials tapping our phones. What we did worry about was mafia thugs asking us for protection money. One swaggering gangster came into the Newsweek office, waving a gun. We later figured he was probably sent by a Moscow official who was upset by our coverage.

In the end, it all comes down to rule of law.