China’s Intensifying Suppression of Foreign Journalism

By refusing to grant visas to foreign correspondents and by pressuring publications to spike critical stories, Beijing has made it increasingly difficult for reporters to operate in the country. 

Conditions for foreign journalists in China are arguably worse now than they've been in decades. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

In his 18 years as a journalist in Beijing, during which he worked for publications like Newsweek and the South China Morning Post, Paul Mooney went through the same ritual each time he changed employers and needed a new visa. He would prepare five clips of his work, carefully selected to avoid sensitive issues, and send them to the Chinese consulate. And, each time, the consulate approved his application.

In February, Reuters offered Mooney a job as a features reporter based in Beijing, and, as usual, the journalist prepared his five clips for the consulate. But this time, Mooney endured a difficult interview. The consulate had prepared specific questions about his work, even mentioning a 2010 interview he gave with Jeremy Goldkorn of the popular blog Danwei. Mooney was also asked for his opinion on Chen Guangcheng, Tibet, and other controversial issues. “Clearly, they had done their homework,” he said.

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A few weeks after submitting his application, Reuters checked with the consulate about Mooney's visa and was told that it was still under review. Subsequent checks—done every few weeks—received the same answer. Finally, Mooney’s visa was ultimately rejected, and his career in China appears to be over. “I am very disappointed,” he told me.

Mooney is only the latest example of a disturbing trend: China’s crackdown on foreign journalists. Last year, Melissa Chan, a Beijing-based reporter for al Jazeera, suddenly had her visa canceled, forcing her to leave the country. And after Bloomberg News and The New York Times published investigative reports into the wealth of two of China’s top leaders (current president Xi Jinping and former prime minister Wen Jiabao, respectively), the two websites were immediately blocked—and neither company has been able to secure visas for new journalists ever since.

Mooney's visa rejection wasn't even the most depressing China censorship story from the weekend. The New York Times reported on Friday that Bloomberg News spiked a long-running investigative report into Wang Jianlin, the founder of the Wanda real estate empire and China’s wealthiest citizen, out of concern that publishing the story would jeopardize Bloomberg’s ability to maintain operations in the country. According to the Times article, Bloomberg News editor in chief Matthew Winkler compared the situation to Nazi Germany, where reporters occasionally engaged in self-censorship in order to protect their access. Winkler and Bloomberg have denied this report, saying that the investigation into Wang Jianlin’s wealth is still “active.” But, if the Times’ story is accurate, Bloomberg’s decision to cave marks a disturbing milestone in Western coverage of China.

The reason for the crackdown is this: In China, the subject of official wealth—and of the murky connections between big business and politics—is a potential source of instability in a country where so many people struggle to get ahead. And while only a small percentage of the population can read English-language newspapers, Melissa Chan told me that the Times and Bloomberg exposés still resonated inside China, where many people learned about the stories from relatives in the Chinese diaspora.

Even still, for a Chinese government concerned about soft power, and whose state-owned media companies have recently opened large bureaus abroad, this crackdown is puzzling. The fact that China makes life difficult for foreign journalists is more damaging to the country’s international public relations than reports on the cozy relationship between money and politics, an issue in just about every other country in the world. So why does China bother?

The simple answer is this: because it can. Over the past decade, many Western media companies (including The Atlantic) have increased their coverage of China through expanded bureaus and dedicated sections; in the last two months, for example, both The New York Times and BBC launched blogs devoted to the country. This investment reflects China’s growing significance as a player in international affairs—China is clearly a subject that demands attention. But as a result, this has given China more leverage over the foreign media than it once had.

Paul Mooney told me that he doesn’t believe China will ever manage to squelch all foreign coverage of the country, and in many ways this is truly a golden era for China reporting; from major newspapers to personal blogs, people are providing more valuable insight into the People’s Republic than ever before. But only major, well-funded publications have the ability to underwrite the sort of ambitious investigative reports that shed new light into the inner workings of the Chinese government. To see Bloomberg News, one of these organizations, reportedly cave to pressure (whether to protect its access to the country or, as some have speculated, its lucrative news terminal business) is depressing, especially since, as Emily Parker, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, told NPR, the Bloomberg incident is likely not isolated.

The implications of this trend go far beyond just the media. For years, foreigners have employed a comforting fantasy about China’s trajectory, which is that as the country grows wealthier and more powerful, its norms regarding press freedom will coalesce with “ours.” And, in a roundabout way, technology has brought about this process: Platforms like Sina Weibo and WeChat, as well as the explosion of cheap smartphones among China’s middle class, have eroded Beijing’s ability to monitor all forms of speech and expression in the country. But, according to Mooney, who has written about the country since the early 1980s, the Chinese government has become more reactionary and conservative with each successive change in leadership. Far from leading to liberalization, China’s continued growth has only convinced the Communist Party that their approach to media control has been correct all along.

For journalists operating in China, this is chilling news. Unlike their Chinese counterparts, foreign writers have traditionally been able to report whatever they’d like, and, for the most part, this privilege still exists. But the recent crackdown has changed the equation. Journalists who report on human rights issues, like Paul Mooney, now face the prospect of expulsion from the country, or worse; the family of Mike Forsythe, the Bloomberg journalist who reported on Xi Jinping’s wealth, reportedly received death threats following publication. Given these possibilities, it wouldn’t be surprising if a new generation of China-based reporters practiced self-censorship, however subtly, in order to preserve their livelihood.

As for Mooney, his career will continue—Reuters is apparently deciding on a new assignment for him. But China’s refusal to grant him a visa—ironically, on the country’s “Journalist’s Day”— marks an abrupt end to a career spent illuminating the country, and its most contentious, sensitive issues, to foreigners.