Bloomberg News' China Problem

The alleged decision to spike a investigative report into China’s leadership marks a disturbing milestone in the evolution of foreign coverage of the country.
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New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, photographed here with Guangzhou mayor Chen Jianhua, has not commented on whether Bloomberg news spiked a China investigation in order to preserve access in the country. (Keith Bedford/Reuters)

Last weekend, The New York Times and later, The Financial Times reported that, according to Bloomberg News employees, Bloomberg editor in chief Matthew Winkler informed reporters by telephone on October 29 that Bloomberg would not publish their investigative story linking China’s wealthiest men to the country’s top leaders, because of concerns the story would anger the Chinese government and might elicit retribution in the form of denied visas for reporters. Winkler denied the employees’ allegations, telling the Times the stories “were active and not spiked.”

The same day, China’s Foreign Ministry informed journalist Paul Mooney, who has been reporting in China for 18 years, that he would not be granted a journalist visa—a necessary credential for foreigners reporting in China—to work for Reuters.

Both Bloomberg and the Times have had their websites blocked in China and residency visas for new reporters denied since publishing stories on the wealth of the families of China’s leaders last year. The Times story on the family of former premier Wen Jiabao won a Pulitzer Prize. The Times Bloomberg’s “Revolution to Riches” series on the fortunes of leaders including Xi Jinping was awarded Asia Society’s Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia

We asked ChinaFile contributors for their reactions.—The ChinaFile Editors


John Garnaut, former China correspondent for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald:

Full credit to the unnamed employees cited in the article and to Ed Wong at the New York Times for getting this back-story out. If Bloomberg doesn’t have the heft and self-respect to stand by the work of the most formidable team of forensic reporters on the planet, then who does? Mr. Winkler now has the opportunity to show that it was all a misunderstanding by publishing the “active” stories in coming weeks. It might save him (and Mr. Bloomberg) from having to dodge questions for the rest of his career about his logic of bending and spiking stories for the satisfaction of Nazi Germany.


Sidney Rittenberg, founder and president of Rittenberg Associates:

You are so right, John.

I think Bloomberg will either self-correct or crumble as a reputable news agency. They should not waste time on inconsequential or murky stories, but to expose major wrongs, especially those that violate Chinese law, Communist Party regulations, and Chinese public morality, is a major contribution to both China and the world.

The Bloomberg Politburo, which should be backing up its fine journalists, seems to have no clue on how to deal with Chinese issues. The reference to Nazi Germany is both monstrously insulting and, for Bloomberg, hopelessly counter-productive. The Bloomberg bureaucracy should be constantly contacting, negotiating, influencing in support of their China teams, not cracking the whip and hardening the resistance.

Those in China who seriously seek reform will definitely benefit from good journalism, both Chinese and international. Any real Marxist should know that ideas and values cannot be unified by pressure, as in Mao's day, because the entire economic base and China's global position have irrevocably changed since then. Only wide and active popular support can enable Xi Jinping/Li Keqiang to break through the opposition of Big SOE conglomerates, Big Banks, and “Big Mules” to carry out the necessary deep-going reforms. Fine journalists like Mike Forsythe and Shai Oster should be viewed as allies, not enemies.

Wake up, Bloomberg—these are the “times that try men's souls!”


Andrew Nathan, Professor of Political Science at Columbia University:

I’ve been banned from China since the publication in 2001 of The Tiananmen Papers, which I coedited—and that wasn’t even the first time—so I’m familiar with the Chinese government’s efforts to shape its image abroad by the use of punishments and rewards, such as the denial or approval of visas, access, and business opportunities. I don’t want to throw stones at Bloomberg—we still don’t know the whole story. But there’s no doubt that the Chinese government has become more coarse and threatening toward all those both abroad and at home who challenge its official stories on history, ethnic relations, the purity of the ruling party, and the rightness of the Chinese dream. Beijing’s treatment of foreigners is related to its treatment of its own people, like the purging of outspoken academics, crackdowns on civil society activists, and perp walks of domestic bloggers and newspaper reporters. This is not just a tactical tightening during the Third Plenum but a long-term trend, using the government’s growing resources of money and power to shape more aggressively what people can say about China.

But why is the Party so anxious to do this? In his August 19 speech to the Thought Propaganda Work Conference, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping described ideology as a battleground between the ruling Party and Western “enemy forces,” a battleground on which defeat would spell the end of CCP rule. For the system to survive, Xi said, the Party must maintain exclusive control of the “right to speak,” intellectuals must bind themselves to the Party, and 1.3 billion Chinese must believe unanimously whatever the Party tells them to believe. A training film for military cadres created by the Chinese National Defense University described the whole range of China’s relations with the outside world as a Western plot to subvert Chinese people’s faith in their own system. The film even warned that exchange visits with the U.S. military would undermine the loyalty of Chinese officers.

Talk about a finger in a dike! These utterances reek of flop sweat. The Party must be feeling very fragile if it believes that the circulation of ideas like constitutionalism, individualism, and human rights; public discussion of events like the Cultural Revolution and June Fourth; and criticisms of extra-legal “black jails” will lead to its overthrow.


Dorinda Elliott, Contributor, ChinaFile:

China’s ability to withhold visas is an extremely powerful weapon, which the Party uses to great effect. The visa question has insidious ways of sowing the seeds of self-censorship. I am ashamed to admit that I personally have worried about the risk of reporting on sensitive topics, such as human rights lawyers: What if they don’t let me back in? My decision to not write that story—at least not yet—proves that I am complicit in China’s control games. After all, there are plenty of other interesting subjects to pursue, right? When I was editor of Asiaweek magazine in 2001, we put Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi on the cover as the region’s most powerful communicator. We knew it would piss off Beijing, but then again, we could do so with little real risk: Our magazine had very little at stake in China. Time magazine, with a significant circulation in China, got banned for publishing a piece about Falun Gong and spent years trying to get back in.

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

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