Melissa Chan is Al Jazeera’s correspondent based in China. She covered the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province that killed at least 68,000 people. In 2009, she covered the riots in Urumqi, western China. Most recently, she reported live from Pyongyang, North Korea, on Kim Jong-Il’s appointment of his son and successor, Kim Jong-Un. You can follow her on twitter.
A recent survey by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China had some discouraging numbers about reporting conditions in the country. Ninety-four percent of journalists who responded felt the work environment had deteriorated over the last year. Seventy percent had experienced harassment or violence of some kind. And a whopping 99% said reporting conditions in China do not meet international standards.
While many people outside China might have a cognitive understanding that reporting here is difficult, there’s less knowledge of just exactly what kind of difficulties we come across. Our most recent reporting trip serves as a good example of the particular challenges the press corps here faces.
The first thing we must consider as journalists is which hotel we plan on staying in. And by that, I don’t mean checking out TripAdvisor to see which one has the best buffet breakfast. By law in China, all check-ins require passport identification, which the front desk photocopies along with our visa. Hotel staff must then send over the details of all foreign nationals staying at the hotel for the night to the local police station. It’s unlikely officers carefully look over all incoming lists of names, but our journalist visas are different from your usual tourist or business visas — and it tips local officials off there are strangers in their land, nosing about.
On our trip to Hunan Province, the nearest town center to the village we were trying to reach was about 40 minutes away, and we judged it would be too close to the area to spend the night without getting a knock on the door by police.
A good strategy is to check in to a hotel hours away from our final destination, so police officers don’t necessarily make a connection between our arrival and that area’s news story. That also gives us the opportunity to set out before dawn and hopefully get to our interview by mid-morning before most people would spot a TV crew in the neighborhood.
Depending on whether the family or person we’re visiting has nosy neighbors, our team can get quickly reported to local officials who then dispatch a team to investigate. You might wonder why anyone would do such a thing to someone they know. I don’t understand it myself, though I suspect it’s a combination of just how the state has always operated, what people have been taught to do, a historical distrust of foreigners, and finally — I do wonder about the legacy of the Cultural Revolution and the habit of tattling as a show of loyalty to the Communist Party and to the community.
In any case, we’ve nicknamed such men who show up “the Black Audis,” after the vehicles they drive. I don’t know why government officials here love Audis so much, but they do. Audis are almost synonymous with them. I hate looking up to see one of these vehicles appearing around the corner — it usually means our filming will be delayed — if not permanently over. And our opportunity to provide a report to viewers — gone.
Sometimes men show up but don’t do anything to stop us. It is against the law in China to obstruct foreign journalists from reporting freely. This was set out in a directive signed by Premier Wen Jiabao. Government officials therefore have come up with creative ways to make reporting difficult and circumvent the central government’s rules without technically breaking the law. They might hire local boys to intimidate our team. By sub-contracting out intimidation to non-uniformed groups, there’s no proof the government is behind any reporting interference.
It was sheer luck that thugs showed up at Yang Libing’s house while he was away. Mr. Yang, if you’ve had a chance to watch our report (below), is the father whose baby daughter was forcefully taken away from him by corrupt officials looking to profit by handing children over to adoption agencies. He was running late that morning, and what ended up happening was a rather awkward uncertainty as our team and these thugs looked at each other. They knew we were from Al Jazeera. I don’t know how they knew that. They had been driving around searching specifically for us. They stood there and sized us up. In the end, the men sauntered away, ambivalent about the situation themselves. Had Mr. Yang been there, I imagine they would have stayed, their very presence meant to unnerve the person we hoped to interview. I must say we are often saved by the fact that many of the “Black Audi” types don’t really understand how television newsgathering is conducted. Perhaps they believed we would also saunter off after a time, given the absence of Mr. Yang. We did not walk away, of course, but waited until he returned to speak to him.
We later learned that after our interview and past midnight that evening, those men came back — and were not so ambivalent. They interrogated Mr. Yang for more then ten hours and warned him to stop talking to journalists. Since then, Mr. Yang’s phone has generally been off.
Intimidating sources and not reporters has become a more common practice by the Chinese government to block information. Often we speak to incredibly vulnerable people at the lowest socio-economic rung. It is easy to bully them into submission. But even then, it is remarkable that in my years of reporting in China, many people remain willing to speak to journalists despite the danger of retaliation. They perceive that a great injustice has been done to them and feel the need to articulate that. Many also feel they have nothing to lose. In the case of Mr. Yang, I do believe he must’ve felt he had nothing to lose. He’d lost his child. His house was a wood and brick shack, his floor of dirt, and his farming tools not much changed, it appeared, from the ones farmers used in the 19th century.
In the afternoon our team decided to drive around and film the town and surrounding countryside. It would be included in our piece to show viewers how remote this place was. At some point, our hired driver noticed a van had been tracking us for some time. My first inclination was to ignore the van — they can be quite harmless, and the men from earlier in the day had chosen to check us out, then leave us alone. Sometimes these plainclothes officers or thugs would follow us around, taking digital pictures of us as we worked in order to have a record. As long as you’re not self-conscious about it, it is fine.
The van drove past us, looking to leave. But, on a narrow street, it slowed… slowed… then stopped in front of us, blocking our way. We sat there a moment, and then the van doors opened and a number of men jumped out, looking ugly. We locked our doors.
One banged on the window. We didn’t do anything. But — following some hesitation, our driver opened the window cautiously, about halfway. They asked what we were doing there, and if we could come with them. They said we needed to stop what we were doing. My producer shouted back that we needed their identification. With no proof they were with police, on what basis should we do anything?
Remarkably, it was that question that eased the tension. The men scuttled off. I’m confused, but suspect these thugs had never been questioned over their authority by the villagers they terrorized. The question was unexpected and baffled them. After the incident, we continued to film, though much more warily.
The next morning, as we were heading to the airport to fly back to Beijing, we received word that a domestic Chinese journalist we’d given a ride to in the countryside had been told that by doing so, she was complicit in “colluding with foreigners on anti-China missions.” It was a completely absurd charge, and the journalist stood her ground at the police station. It reminded me that though we may run into trouble out in the field, Chinese journalists remain in far trickier positions, and an easier target for authorities to go after.
You develop a level of paranoia sometimes, engrossed in the mission of filming enough footage before getting stopped. On this mission in Hunan, we managed to gather enough material and information to build the report you see below.