Foreign press crackdown a blot on China's image
Beijing is acting against the very people whose work raises its image
By Peh Shing Huei for The Statesman
Originally published on AsiaNewsNet.net on March 3, 2011
Published on BunchofMadmen.com on April 26, 2011
My doorbell rang unexpectedly on Sunday (March 6) afternoon.
I wasn't expecting guests, but I guess the two uninvited ones at my door belong to an organisation that is not in the habit of ringing ahead to announce its arrival.
The two uniformed Chinese policemen at my door, accompanied by a staff member of the estate management, did not introduce themselves or show any identification. Perhaps they figured their blue fatigues were more than sufficient.
They asked to see my passport, my temporary residence permit in Beijing and the press card issued to me by the Chinese government.
"Just a reminder," said one of them. "Please obey Chinese laws when you are working here."
I nodded, and they went away. It was a brief encounter, lasting no more than three minutes. But it was unnerving nonetheless. Nor was I the only foreign journalist to get a surprise home visit from the police.
Although the police have been taciturn about the reasons for the visits, their timing was obviously planned to send a strong warning to foreign journalists: Stop reporting on attempts to stir up a 'Chinese Jasmine Revolution'.
The home visits were among the milder warnings. On February 26, the Public Security Bureau summoned reporters at night for one-on-one briefings. The message to those called up was the same: Obey China's laws. But there has been little elaboration on which exact laws they are referring to.
When foreign journalists gathered at designated protest sites in Beijing and Shanghai to do their jobs, some were blocked, or beaten, kicked, shoved and detained.
This, despite the fact there were actually no protests to speak of. But security forces seemed to object even if foreign journalists filmed them being out in force.
An American journalist who was beaten up on February 27 reported that there were plainclothes officers stationed outside his home here last Saturday night, according to The New York Times.
This crackdown on foreign media operating in China is an unfortunate blot on China's attempts to show a softer face to the world, using means such as the recent airing of glowing video tributes to the country's people and achievements screened in New York's Times Square.
China's deep-seated terror of luan, or chaos, explains its reaction to calls for 'jasmine rallies' - an almost instinctive grab for the bag that contains heavy- handed tactics.
The government's concern that seemingly innocent 'strolling protests' can snowball into centres of anarchy and violence is not without merit.
The calls for protests come at a time of rising income inequality and inflation. Persistent social unhappiness about rampant corruption and runaway housing prices have also raised concerns among the authorities, fearful of a broad-based challenge to the government's control.
But China is not standing pat. It has worked to address these concerns, taking action against corrupt officials, moving to address persistent inflation, and using various initiatives to improve the lot of ordinary people.
Still, satisfying over a billion people is a tough ask, and unhappiness lingers.
China's desire to avoid unrest is understandable, but its treatment of foreign journalists going about their work is uncalled for.
Since the anonymous online calls for pro-democracy Sunday rallies - inspired by events in the Middle East - began, foreign journalists here, both Western and Asian, have borne the brunt of the government's worries about the so-called 'strolling protests'.
The Chinese government has taken pains to stress that it has followed the rule of law in its treatment of foreign journalists. Foreign minister Yang Jiechi said on Tuesday (March 8): "China is a country under the rule of law, and we abide by the law. We have always followed relevant laws and regulations in managing the affairs related to foreign journalists in China."
This is a welcome assurance as far as it goes. But the authorities have not explained just what laws journalists have violated by operating in places like Beijing's Wangfujing shopping street and Shanghai's People's Square.
A recent foreign ministry briefing is a case in point: Asked about the identities of plainclothes policemen who allegedly beat up a foreign journalist, a spokesman retorted, "you should ask them who they are".
The current crackdown on foreign media is a departure from the more liberal climate during and after the 2008 Olympics, when regulations governing foreign reporters were first relaxed, allowing us to report on practically anything without official permission. Foreign reporters were free to operate in China, and needed only the consent of interviewees before doing their work.
Since then, some exceptions have been made. Tibet, for example, has banned foreign journalists regularly. The restive western region is off-limits again this month, said Tibet's party secretary Zhang Qingli on Tuesday. He blamed the 'cold winter'.
The fact that Monday, March 14, is the third anniversary of the 2008 protests against Chinese rule does not help, either.
Beijing's 'commercial districts' now appear to have joined this arbitrary category of temporary no-reporting zones, according to a municipal official in a press conference on Sunday.
The foreign ministry insists that international media continue to be free to report in China, but the government's actions say otherwise.
By intimidating foreign journalists, China has done itself a disservice: It is acting harshly against the very people whose professional work in reporting truthfully the country's numerous advances and achievements has helped it gain a more positive image worldwide.
Worse, it has cast a light on the realities of the Chinese regime - one capable of leading the country towards impressive development, but which is not above bullying its guests and suspending civil liberties whenever it sees fit.