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.