Why Does China Mess With the Foreign Press?

Beijing's handling of foreign media seems to be backfiring. The latest in an ongoing series of discussions with ChinaFile.


Andrew Nathan:

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 cyber snoops dug into the Times' servers -- to find out who had ordered a political attack on China's premier and for what purpose.

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 cyber-spies broke into the Bloomberg servers too, no doubt looking for the non-existent answers to the same ill-informed questions.

Isabel Hilton:

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.

It is time we had such a bi-lateral caucus between media stakeholders in both the U.S. and 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 Wenping, 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.

Jonathan Landreth:

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 journalist 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.

If unauthorized information about Chinese leaders comes out, it is normally the result of political infighting that generates leaks and rumors.

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 to a luxury hotel kiosk to try to buy a copy of Newsweek, one of many American magazines still, to this day, not allowed to be sold anywhere else. 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 page 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 micro-blog 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 where the well-to-do clientele were either foreigners or wealthy Chinese who'd traveled abroad and thus already were aware that there existed a freer press outside China's borders.

ChinaFile is an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. 

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