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China's Government Is Scaring Foreign Journalists Into Censoring Themselves

Feng Li/Getty Images News/Getty Images

“The visa question has insidious ways of sowing the seeds of self-censorship,” Dorinda Elliott, the global affairs editor at Condé Nast Traveler, wrote on ChinaFile last month. “I am ashamed to admit that I personally have worried about the risk of reporting on sensitive topics, such as human rights lawyers: what if they don’t let me back in?” Elliott is a longtime China hand who worked as Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief in the late 1980s. “My decision to not write that story—at least not yet—proves that I am complicit in China’s control games,” she continued. “After all, there are plenty of other interesting subjects to pursue, right?”

The most shocking thing about Elliott’s statement is its honesty. Western journalists are not supposed to make any concessions to China, and even when they do, they rarely admit it. Many people were thus horrified by recent reports that Matt Winkler, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, spiked an investigative piece about one of China's richest men out of fear of offending the government. (Winkler denied killing the piece and said it is still under consideration.)

People are understandably angry about the Bloomberg reports, but they shouldn’t be surprised. This is all part of a larger story. China may force some two dozen correspondents from The New York Times and Bloomberg News to leave the country by the end of the year, apparently in response to their investigative reports on the familial wealth of the Chinese leadership. “Chinese officials have all but said that American reporters know what they need to do to get their visas renewed: tailor their coverage,” The New York Times wrote. On Thursday, Vice President Joseph Biden, who was visiting Beijing, said he had “profound disagreements” with China’s “treatment of U.S. journalists.” As China more harshly intimidates foreign reporters, incidents of Western self-censorship will only increase. Bloomberg is not the first case, and it will not be the last.

These cases are often not as black-and-white as they appear to be in the Bloomberg incident, where an editor apparently took an existing story and shut it down. The story of self-censorship in China is a quieter tale of unwritten articles, avoided topics and careful phrasing. There is also a constant quest for “balance.” “Any sophisticated reporter is always thinking about how to show things in their complexity,” said The Atlantic’s James Fallows, “and that inner process of balance, which is a healthy impulse, is inevitably affected by your knowledge of how thin-skinned the Chinese government might be about any isolated bad-news report.”

The once-vague threat of expulsion has, for many foreign journalists in China, become a more tangible reality. Last year, Al Jazeera English's Melissa Chan was expelled. And just this fall, Paul Mooney, who had been reporting on China for 18 years, was denied a visa to be a China-based correspondent for Reuters. Neither journalist was given a reason for the punishment.

James McGregor, a journalist, author and businessman with more than two decades of China experience, told me that fear of visa refusals indeed does influence foreign reporting on China. “As the Chinese reaction gets more and more aggressive, foreign reporters in China get more and more wary. These are people with wives and husbands and children in school, and to not get your visa renewed can upset your whole life. It’s in the back of people’s minds.”

A Beijing-based reporter for a major U.S. newspaper, who requested anonymity for fear that the Chinese government might cancel his visa (yes, that really was his reason), put it this way: “Sometimes you can feel that you have a limited amount of ammunition and you ask yourself: Do I want to spend it all on this one mission that might not yield anything and will leave me vulnerable, or on knocking out these other targets?” 

“Topics like [ethnic and political unrest in the far western province of] Xinjiang, Tibet and Falun Gong are really low percentage stories for foreign correspondents,” he added. “You might get a great story but then be expelled from China or suffer when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs decides to delay giving you a new visa until the very last day of the year. There are all sorts of ways they can make your life miserable and they increasingly do this—it’s part of an increasingly assertive China.”

 “There’s no way to know precisely where the line is, much less when you might go over it, except by means of delicately tuned antennae,” said Orville Schell, who has written many books on China and is the director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations (where I was formerly a fellow). “But once you’ve crossed over into the observation zone of the Party, you know it, and the question of denied access cannot help but come into your calculations about what you say and what you write.” 

Paul Mooney, the journalist who recently was denied a visa for Reuters, doesn’t know when he crossed the line. It could have been his reporting on AIDS or Tibet, or the fact that he worked on the dissident Chen Guangcheng’s English-language memoir. He told me that he didn’t pull his punches in China, simply because he didn’t see the point of being there if he couldn’t write what he wanted. Other Americans advised him to be more pragmatic. “Even over the past year, waiting for my visa to come through, journalist friends, academics and China watchers said to me, stop posting critical things on Facebook,” he said. Many foreign journalists do their Chinese visa applications in December, to get them in before the end of the year. Mooney told me that a European journalist approached him for an interview recently but did not plan to write a story until after his own visa had been renewed. “How many foreign journalists are doing the same thing every year at this time, or are now doing this throughout the year?” Mooney wondered.

Countless Chinese journalists do this all the time. Of course, for them the stakes are much higher: They could end up behind bars. “Self-censorship is in my blood,” an outspoken Chinese Internet dissident once proudly told me. His years of carefully dancing around political land mines kept him out of exile or jail. Murong Xuecun, a writer and an increasingly bold critic, recently admitted: “I often remind myself: Don't engage in self-censorship, and I was confident I had succeeded in this, but so far I have not yet written a single article about Tibet issues, even though I lived in Llasa for three years; nor have I openly discussed Xinjiang issues, even though they are of great concern to me.” 

This is not to say that all Western reporters censor themselves in China. Over the past year or so, there has been startlingly bold reporting. Oft-cited examples include David Barboza’s Pulitzer Prize winning reporting on the riches acquired by the family of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, and somewhat ironically, Bloomberg’s own investigation into the wealth of the relatives of President Xi Jinping. Those news organizations paid a price for their reporting, but others write on sensitive topics and emerge unscathed. In 2010, Evan Osnos, former Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, did a profile of the Dalai Lama, and he didn’t get the boot. Some writers are less fearful of expulsion because they are not career China hands, or perhaps because they are China hands who have just had enough. Jeremy Goldkorn, a Beijing-based blogger and the director of the research firm Danwei, told me, “Every time I apply for a visa or leave the country and come back in, the thought always passes through my mind that maybe this time it’s not going to work. But I've been in China for so long, that I’m thinking it would be a good thing if they kicked me out.”

These examples don’t paint a complete picture of Western writing on China, however. Furthermore, writers who do calibrate their criticism are not necessarily moral cowards with Chinese business interests at heart. Some fear that if they are kicked out of China, they will lose touch with the ever-changing realities on the ground. This makes it harder to accurately convey those realities to the outside world, and to write prose that will resonate with Chinese readers. Today an article by the foreign press can be translated into Chinese and go viral on the mainland, something that was inconceivable ten years ago. A post with a Chinese translation of an article I wrote for this publication, on a sensitive attempted murder mystery no less, soared to #1 on Weibo, where it was retweeted over 125,000 times. Despite a strict censorship regime, the power of social media helps explain why Chinese authorities are so nervous about Western reporting. 

Self-censorship reaches across various industries. Hollywood studios who want to show their films in China submit them to censors in advance. Authors will agree to cuts in order to get their books sold on the mainland. Some students at Princeton who are interested in China turn away from internships or dissertation topics related to Chinese democracy and human rights. Scholars whose institutions have Chinese partnerships may face additional pressures, says Elizabeth Economy, senior fellow and director for Asia Studies at The Council on Foreign Relations. For example, “an objective of promoting U.S.-China cooperation could rapidly become synonymous with avoiding sensitive political topics that might upset the Chinese side and thereby hinder cooperation.”

It’s unrealistic to expect journalists to be immune to the temptations of self-censorship, especially at a time when China is turning up the heat on both individual reporters and entire news organizations. Last week, Chinese authorities showed up at Bloomberg’s bureaus in Shanghai and Beijing for unannounced “inspections.”  A Bloomberg reporter was also barred from a press event with Li Keqiang, China’s prime minister. The New York Times website remains blocked in China, as does Bloomberg’s, whose Chinese terminal sales have slowed. 

There is no easy solution to self-censorship, but we can start by having an honest conversation about the fact that its arm reaches much farther than Bloomberg News. “I have a certain sympathy with Matt Winkler,”  Orville Schell said. “I understand his dilemma. I live his dilemma. Indeed, many of us who deal with China--whether journalists, scholars, diplomats, businessmen or film makers--live his dilemma, and it would be disingenuous to plead otherwise.”

Emily Parker, a senior fellow at The New America Foundation, is the author of “Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground,” which will be published in 2014 by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux.