Pressed and Ironed
China-based correspondents for international news media need to hold a Press Card 常驻记者证 and a ‘J1’ long-term journalist visa, both of which are issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since the 1990s, it has been relatively straightforward for established foreign news organisations to obtain these documents, and the ranks of Beijing- and Shanghai-based correspondents have swelled.
Between 1992 and 2011, the Chinese government expelled only three foreign journalists: Henrik Bork of the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau in 1995, accusing Bork of ‘aggressive, biased’ reporting and, in 1998, Juergen Kremb of Germany’s Der Spiegel and Yukihisa Nakatsu of Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, alleging that they had illegally obtained state secrets.
Then, in 2012, the ministry denied a visa extension to Melissa Chan of Al Jazeera’s English TV channel. Although officials did not explain why, other journalists believed it had to do with a documentary aired by Al Jazeera on slave labour in Chinese jails.
On 29 June 2012, the financial news service Bloomberg published a story titled ‘Xi Jinping Millionaire Relations Reveal Fortunes of Elite’ on their website; it was blocked within hours of publication. Since then, Bloomberg has been unable to obtain journalist visas for new correspondents despite (according to The New York Times) self-censoring further such investigative reports into the financial holdings of Chinese officials and their families. The Times itself published a story titled ‘Family of Wen Jiabao Holds a Hidden Fortune in China’ on 25 October 2012. The Chinese government immediately blocked the paper’s website. Correspondents already working for both Bloomberg and The New York Times have been able to renew their documents with the exception of the celebrated Chris Buckley, but the ministry has not approved any new ones. In November 2013, Paul Mooney, a veteran China reporter known for his coverage of human rights issues, was denied a visa to work at Reuters’ Beijing bureau.
In May 2014, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, which operates in China without official recognition, issued a report on working conditions for foreign journalists. Their survey of 162 foreign correspondents revealed that eighteen percent had experienced difficulties renewing their press cards or visas, twice as many as in their previous survey at the end of 2011. The report also quotes journalists who describe rough manhandling by plainclothes police, forced meetings with police who threaten not to renew journalists’ visas and warn against covering news such as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1989 Protest Movement, the detention and telephone harassment of news assistants (who are Chinese nationals) and hacking of journalists’ email accounts.