In China, What Is the Law?

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By Lauren Hilgers


[JF note: Last week in this space, Jeremiah Jenne reported several times, for instance here, on the Beijing aspects of China's official response to "Jasmine" protesters. Short version: there are hardly any protesters but there are plenty of police, uniformed and otherwise, whose attention has been concentrated on the foreign journalists who attempt to witness the events. In Beijing, several journalists were roughed up, and many have been called in "for tea" -- local code for a warning session from Chinese officials. Through the past week, the larger question of whether the Chinese government is "changing the rules" for news coverage inside the country, and whether in fact there are any "rules" (as opposed to subjective, ad-hoc crackdowns), has been hotly discussed. Lauren Hilgers, an American journalist based for several years in Shanghai, sent this note about the current state of events there. I am posting it as a complement to reports from Beijing and as an indication of the effort to understand how, whether, and why rules are changing inside China and what "rule of law" means here.]

In China, under pressure
By Lauren Hilgers

Over the past week, ever since security forces and street cleaning trucks disrupted the seemingly small "Jasmine" protests, China's security apparatus has been dialing up the pressure on foreign journalists here. Phone calls, "tea" meetings and scoldings have been followed up with threats that flouting Chinese law could lead to "administrative or criminal" punishment. In short, they'll throw you in jail or take away your visa. 

I live in Shanghai, which, in terms of security matters, runs a little behind Beijing. Journalists in Beijing reported being asked last week to register if they would be filming or conducting interviews in Wangfujing, the popular shopping district where protestors had been told to show up. Security was also more heavy handed in Beijing, where one journalist was beaten by unidentified men. The worst I heard in Shanghai was one cameraman getting repeatedly kicked in the shins when he tried to film (According to him, this was a clever tactic. It is difficult to hold a camera above your head while getting kicked in the shins and it's difficult to record. When he moved to film the kicking in action, they stopped. On another note, it is also worth mentioning that the water-spraying street cleaners dispatched in Shanghai trundled through the crowds playing an ice-cream truck version of "Happy Birthday.") 

Here, the phone calls started coming after the protest was over. The first, as far as I know, was made to a journalist on his way home from People's Square that Sunday and started out sheepishly: "We just wanted to ask...do you have any complaints?"  As the week progressed and more journalists were called in for meetings, the message from the Public Security Bureau and the local Foreign Ministry became steadily more menacing and more confusing. Some journalists reported being told that conducting interviews in People's Square in Shanghai requires a permit; some were told that journalists can attract crowds and block traffic, so to avoid busy areas; some were out-and-out banned from going. Most everyone was been reminded to obey Chinese law.    

From the Chinese perspective, at least as it's represented in the state-run media, this isn't about freedom of the press, it's about foreign journalists causing trouble. An Op-ed that appeared today in the government-run Chinese paper the Global Times that ran with the headline "Journalists don't need to hunt out weird news" and, in Beijing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, Jiang Yu told reporters, "If you try to defy the law and create news and end up being not a reporter of the news but the creator of news, then the nature of your role has changed." (WSJ account here.) The message, again, was to follow Chinese law.

But what is the law in China?
Beijing loosened restrictions after the Olympics, changing decades-old regulations that required journalists to apply for permission every time they took reporting trips or interviewed a Chinese citizen (these regulations were regularly flouted). Following the Olympics, China's Premier Wen Jiabao announced new regulations that would allowed journalists to travel freely in China (excluding Tibet) and required only the permission of an individual or organization to conduct an interview. The new restrictions appear to be rolling back these freedoms, at least temporarily.

In Beijing, the justification for limiting reporting in Wangfujing comes from a site-specific and previously unheard of regulation that went into effect on January 1st this year. The regulations expanded the list of disruptive activities in the busy shopping area to "conducting unauthorized interviews or photography that gathers people together." In Shanghai, authorities appear to be interpreting People's Square as an organization when they ask journalists to apply for a permit--reporting there requires the permission of the government department managing the Square. 

Many of these new restrictions seem to have been put together on an ad-hoc basis. For example, when I visited the government office said to be giving out permits for reporting at People's Square, a very nice woman assured me that she had no idea what I was talking about--the office was in charge of authorizing filming for TV shows or documentaries, not interviews. 

The flexible (and variable) interpretation of the law is also apparent in blocking traffic, a crime mentioned under China's public safety regulations, which is a frequently-cited offense. One rather tall journalist was told last Sunday, "You're too tall, you'll block traffic." 

If these types of justifications continue, the implications are that any public area could be made off-limits. They will also serve as a continuing reminder to journalists that law in China is flexible. It's hard to judge what's legal and what's illegal, what's doing your job and what's blocking traffic, because the line is always changing.

There have been online calls for protests again this Sunday. I hope that this time  journalists will be safe and security forces circumspect.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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