Foreign correspondents in China say harassment, intimidation by authorities ramping up

A new report by a group representing foreign media in China says the country is using "all arms of state power" to harass and intimidate journalists, including surveillance, controls on movement and COVID-19 restrictions.

Media clampdown in past year corresponds with coverage of coronavirus, political issues

A security guard moves journalists away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology on Feb. 3 after a World Health Organization team arrived for a field visit. The team was in China investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

Unwanted attention of authorities and obstruction on the job is just part of the territory for many foreign correspondents working in China.

Steven Lee Myers, Beijing bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote about one such experience when he was detained for 17 hours in Sichuan province, along with French photographer Gilles Sabrié.

Lee Myers was there in February 2018 to write about Tibetan holiday traditions, when a police officer appeared at a temple they had visited and began questioning him without giving any explanation about what they'd done wrong. As a result, he ended up writing about the hours he spent in custody.

"To be clear, journalists face far worse threats and abuse in China and elsewhere," he wrote in the piece.

It's true that in the past year, journalists working in China have faced far worse as part of an apparent clampdown on media freedom in China, confirmed in a report released on Monday by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC).

Pandemic led to tit-for-tat expulsions

Its annual survey on media freedom in 2020 found foreign journalists have been singled out in the way they've been treated under COVID-19 restrictions. The report also accused Chinese authorities of stepping up efforts to frustrate the work of journalists and to harass and intimidate them, by, for example, conducting physical and electronic surveillance.

Lee Myers is one of 18 American journalists from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post who were kicked out of the country in March 2020 as tensions flared between Beijing and Washington over the coronavirus pandemic.

Steven Lee Myers, a correspondent for the New York Times, is shown in China in March 2020. He was one of 18 American journalists from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post who were expelled from the country last March after the Trump administration imposed a limit on visas for Chinese state-owned media operating in the U.S. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

"In the middle of a pandemic, we were given 10 days to pack up and leave," he said in an interview over Skype.

He's now based in Seoul, still covering the China beat. His fellow correspondents at the Times who were in Beijing have dispersed to other regions, including Singapore, Sydney and Taiwan, to continue reporting on the world's second-biggest superpower.

The expulsions were triggered when the Trump administration decided to limit to 100 the number of Chinese journalists working in the United States for five state-owned media outlets, effectively forcing about 60 of them to leave.

China says its move was a necessary response to the oppression its media organizations experienced in the U.S.

"They couched it as being reciprocal, but obviously, they targeted it at news organizations they particularly didn't like," Lee Myers said.

For example, an opinion article published in the early days of the pandemic by the Wall Street Journal, entitled "China is the Real Sick Man of Asia," enraged Chinese officials and prompted criticism on social media and from some academics. Following its publication in February 2020, China's Foreign Affairs Ministry said the newspaper "must be held responsible for what it has done."

Figures provided by the FCCC show that there are now just 39 accredited American journalists working in China. Before last March's expulsions, there were roughly 60, according to an estimate provided by one of the club's board members.

But the deteriorating environment for reporters in China goes well beyond the diplomatic feud between Washington and Beijing — and the expulsion of journalists.

'Strict controls' on journalists: report

In its report — based on 150 responses to a survey of correspondents conducted via email and interviews with bureau chiefs — the FCCC said that for the third year in a row, none of the journalists said that working conditions had improved.

It also said "all arms of state power ... were used to harass and intimidate journalists" and that "new surveillance systems and strict controls on movement — implemented for public health reasons — have been used to limit foreign journalists."

Harassment of journalists in Xinjiang province was especially tense. The report said correspondents were visibly followed by police or state security agents, asked to delete data from their devices and prevented from talking to people.

A police officer stands near what is officially called a vocational education centre in Yining, in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, on Sept. 4, 2018. Journalists have faced harassment in the region, where China is accused of incarcerating as many as a million ethnic Uighurs, who are mostly Muslim. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The Globe and Mail's Canadian correspondent in China, Nathan VanderKlippe, was among those who shared their experience of operating in the region, where China is accused of incarcerating as many as a million Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority.

"Followed from airports on arrival. Shoved and grabbed by people who refused to identify themselves. Placed under such close surveillance that interviews were impossible," the report quotes him as saying.

It's in stark contrast to the message China is delivering about allowing outsiders to come and see for themselves what's happening in the northwest region. On Tuesday, at a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, China's delegate, Jiang Duan, said that "the door to Xinjiang is always open."

Also notable, according to the report, is that authorities in China either delayed the renewal of press cards or refused altogether to issue the credentials, which are required for journalists to work in the country. 

Security personnel stop journalists at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, China, during a visit by the WHO team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease, on Jan. 31. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

VanderKlippe was one of those particularly hard hit as relations between Ottawa and Beijing broke down over the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in December 2018 and the subsequent detention in China of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor:

"I received seven consecutive one-month visas, followed by a three month-visa," he says in the report.

Singapore journalist Chun Han Wong of the Wall Street Journal was among those whose press credentials were not renewed, and German photographer Katharina Hesse was one of several who had their visa applications for re-entry denied.

Police face journalists outside a police station where media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, founder of Apple Daily, was held after his arrest by the national security unit in Hong Kong, on Aug. 12, 2020. (Lam Yik/Reuters)

Australian journalists have also been caught up in the clampdown. Like Canada and the U.S., Australia is mired in a bitter feud with Beijing, prompted by Canberra's calls for a probe into the origins of the global pandemic.

In September, Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and Michael Smith, a correspondent for the Australian Financial Review, were temporarily barred from leaving China, allegedly for national security reasons. They were only permitted to go after a diplomatic standoff.

Another Australian, Cheng Lei, an anchor for state broadcaster CGTN, was arrested in September and charged with supplying state secrets overseas.

'They don't need the foreign media as much'

One major frustration faced by correspondents came when China eased cross-border COVID-19 travel restrictions and began allowing foreign nationals with Chinese residence permits to return. Journalists were not included among those entitled to relaxed visa rules.

"The overall view is ... that they don't need the foreign media as much," said Keith Richburg, director of the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre and a former China correspondent for the Washington Post.

Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who was the anchor for state broadcaster CGTN, is shown in Beijing in this image taken from undated video footage. She was arrested in September and charged with supplying state secrets overseas. (Australia Global Alumni/Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Reuters)

Richburg, who's also president of the Hong Kong chapter of the Foreign Correspondents' Club, said when he was covering China in the 1990s, authorities in Beijing wanted more foreign journalists in the country because "it made them feel like we were taking them seriously as a big power."

But he said now that China wields greater influence globally, he senses that authorities are much more interested in control than ever before. Tightening control over the media has been a feature of Chinese President Xi Jinping's leadership, and from the start of China's coronavirus outbreak, it appears the government has become more intolerant of criticism.

WATCH | Why it's in China's interest to restrict foreign media:

Does China need foreign media anymore?

3 years ago
Duration 1:54
China wields so much power on the global stage these days that it is less concerned about how foreign media makes the country look than in the past, says Keith Richburg, director of the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre and a former China correspondent for the Washington Post.

The result of these measures is the largest expulsion of foreign journalists from China since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre more than three decades ago, according to the FCCC board member, who said before last year, only about 12 foreign journalists were expelled since 1989.

Some reports have suggested Beijing is retaliating against negative coverage of the coronavirus outbreak from Wuhan — where the first COVID-19 cases were detected in December 2019 — and other sensitive topics, such as the Uighurs, the sovereignty of Tibet and a new national security law in Hong Kong that was imposed by Beijing.

'Notable incidents' include harassment, assault

The FCCC report includes roughly a dozen "notable incidents" of foreign journalists facing everything from harassment and intimidation to assault and destruction of property in 2020.

"In April, a correspondent for a U.K. news organization was accosted by more than a dozen plainclothes people outside a cemetery in Wuhan, who dragged her backward several metres as she tried to leave," says one account. "The men grabbed her devices and checked her passport, refusing to return any of the items."

WATCH | China jails citizen-journalist who captured early days of pandemic:

China jails citizen-journalist who captured early days of pandemic

3 years ago
Duration 2:01
China has sentenced citizen-journalist Zhang Zhan to four and a half years behind bars for her reporting on the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, which painted a different picture than the government wanted.

The report also outlines an incident in September involving Alice Su of the Los Angeles Times. It says she "was surrounded by plainclothes men outside a school in Hohhot, inner Mongolia, who forced her to a police station." Her requests to call the U.S. Embassy were denied and "when she tried to reach for her phone, an officer put his hands around her throat and locked her in a soundproof cell for an hour," where she was interrogated, the report said.

On Monday, the spokesperson for China's Foreign Affairs Ministry, Wang Wenbin, said the findings detailed in the FCCC's report were "baseless."

"We always welcome media and foreign journalists from all countries to cover news in China according to the law," he said.

But foreign correspondents aren't the only ones in the firing line. Chinese staff working for international media faced substantial pressure over their work. For example, Haze Fan, a journalist for Bloomberg News, was detained in December. No details have been provided on where she is or why she's been detained.

Security personnel block journalists after the World Health Organization team arrives at the Baishazhou wholesale market on Jan. 31, the third day of a field visit in Wuhan, China, investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)


Patrick Fok is director of APAC Strategy and Beijing correspondent for Feature Story News, a global broadcasting agency headquartered in Washington, D.C. A native of Hong Kong, he previously worked for Reuters and Channel NewsAsia in Singapore.