In the wake of expulsions and a rise in surveillance and harassment of journalists working in Mainland China, City’s Department of Journalism hosted a fascinating panel discussion featuring several leading journalists specialising in reporting China

By Chris Lines (Senior Communications Officer), Published (Updated )

A stellar panel of journalists with expertise on reporting in China have gathered on Zoom – in front of an audience of over 100 journalism students and staff members from City, University of London – for a lively and enlightening panel discussion.

The event – moderated and organised by Yuen Chan, Senior Lecturer in City’s Department of Journalism – saw a selection of relevant topics discussed, from the recent impact of diminished press freedom for Hong Kong-based journalists, to whether foreign or Chinese journalists (or indeed those from Hong Kong, pictured above) are better placed to unearth stories in Mainland China. Not to mention the fact that more and more seasoned China reporters are now forced to report on China from outside the country.

The expert panel were:

Chris Buckley, Chief China Correspondent for the New York Times, who is currently working from Sydney after being forced to leave China in May.

Yuan Yang, Deputy Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times, who mainly covers China's technology sector and policy. Yuan is the co-founder of Rethinking Economics, a UK charity that campaigns to make economics teaching more relevant to the 21st century.

David Paulk, Head of News at Sixth Tone, Shanghai’s leading English-language media outlet. He has been based in China since 2012 and occasionally writes about sports, science, and international relations.

Shirley Yam, an award-winning financial journalist, specialising in China's corporate development. She has worked for major newspapers in Hong Kong including South China Morning Post and has been a press freedom activist.

Bruce Lui,Senior Lecturer and Director of the Chinese Journalism stream at Hong Kong Baptist University. Previously, he was Principal China Reporter at Hong Kong i-Cable News for seven years.

The impact of national security law

In June 2020, China passed a wide-ranging new national security law for Hong Kong which makes it easier to punish protesters and reduces the city's autonomy.

Yuen Chan noted in her opening remarks that while Hong Kong used to be a beacon of press freedom in the region – with journalists using it as a base for reporting on Mainland China safely and freely, especially those who had been kept out of the Mainland – “that has all changed” with the new national security law last summer.

The law poses new challenges for journalists reporting on China, although the New York Times’ Chris Buckley stressed that there have always been challenges.

He said: “It’s always worth reminding people that it was never a picnic to report in China. There were always problems with harassment from officials, lack of access to officials, difficulties with arranging interviews – but they have become more systematic, more intense and more pervasive.

“Nowadays, as journalists, we’re sometimes not sure where the boundaries are. This creates a general atmosphere of fear and nervousness that can make it much more difficult to get reporting done on the ground.”

“Even the most innocent reporting about visiting a factory or talking to people on the street can be quite a troublesome experience these days,” said Buckley.

Control, halt, delete

A December 2019 report titled Control-Halt-Delete, based on a survey of journalists who belong to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China in Beijing, catalogued a bleak inventory of issues reporters in China were facing. So, what is still possible? And how have correspondents adapted?

The Financial Times’ Yuan Yang says that when friends overseas ask how it’s going in Beijing, she finds it hard to know how to answer.

She said: “On the one hand, Beijing is not having a very severe lockdown because it has relatively low levels [of Covid-19]. As a result, on a day-to-day basis, I have a very comfortable life in Beijing; I can see my friends, I can go to the office, I can speak to my colleagues, and I can interview people face to face.”

None of this would be possible were she somewhere else. On the other hand, Yang and her colleagues also feels a constant sense that many parts of their reporting lives are outside of their control.

“We cannot ensure the safety of all our colleagues,” she said. “Particularly Chinese nationals, who have been coming under increasing pressure from Chinese authorities for working with us as foreign journalists. Nor can we ensure the safety of our sources."

These issues lead to a strange, paradoxical sense of stability, convenience and comfort, and at the same an extremely high level of instability and political risk.

Yang says that recent detentions of journalists have served as a warning sign to the foreign correspondent community and the Chinese nationals who work with them.

And yet foreign journalists in China are still getting high returns from their investigations. “There are still a lot of stories to report if you have the patience to chase them,” says Yang.

“Increasingly in the future, Chinese language skills will be much more important. You must be able to get to know your sources and socialise with them in order to win their trust.”

Harder year on year

David Paulk’s employer Sixth Tone – an online magazine owned by the Shanghai United Media Group, a state media company controlled by the Shanghai committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – covers a diverse range of social issues. Is he therefore acutely aware of what can and cannot be reported on?

“It’s certainly an adventure, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “Less is possible this year than the year before, as has been the case for several years running now.”

Sixth Tone were able to do more when they were small – now they are larger and more influential, the reins have tightened somewhat.

As a company that gets its funding from Shanghai, they don’t cover Hong Kong, Taiwan or Xinjiang – it would be impossible to cover those issues impartially, so they avoid them completely.

Paulk said: “It might surprise people, but what we can publish and report on often depends on the calendar – for instance, if there are sensitive anniversaries.

“This year is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP, so it’ll be a hard year to successfully report on sensitive subjects.”

“We don’t want to fall into the habit of saying we can’t write about this so why even try – instead we think carefully about using words that won’t offend the censors, and we’ve become adept at using euphemisms in our writing.

“The censors are regulators – articles don’t get taken down, rather they completely disappear. For the most part, if there's not already a gagging order on a particular topic and my boss gives us the go-ahead to pursue it, if we encounter any problems then we deal with those later.”

“We try to separate ourselves from other state-affiliated media by not having any propaganda, and I think we have achieved that.”

National security law: a cause for serious worry

Shirley Yam has numerous concerns at the problems the new national security law is causing in Hong Kong – not just for individuals but for media outlets, too.

She reiterated Yuan Yang’s point about language and cultural fluency being important – censors will sometimes send a journalist historical information, for instance about the Ming dynasty, in order to “send a message” – and she sounded a grim warning of what’s to come.

“The national security law can cause assets to be frozen with all kinds of excuses,” said Yam. “It’s also used to intimidate those who fund media platforms. For online media (who rely heavily on crowdfunding) that’s a really bad thing. The impact of these actions will trickle down.

“In the national security law, it specifically says that the Hong Kong government is to implement regulations and guidelines for the media. We haven’t seen this yet because we’re probably third in the queue.

First they will deal with school and universities, and political opponents, and then the media will be next.

“So, we haven’t seen the worst of it yet.”

Tip of the iceberg

Bruce Lui, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Chinese Journalism stream at Hong Kong Baptist University, painted a picture of what its like for Hong Kong journalists reporting China at the moment.

“We are not Mainland Chinese reporters, and we are not foreigners. We are quite in-between. But our faces are Chinese. We speak local dialects and can dress up like villagers, drink wine with government officials and smoke a cigarette with local people,” he said.

After a Hong Kong journalist gets what they need for a story, locals will sometimes help them to evade officials.

Lui warns that the current situation with journalists facing increased challenges in reporting China is a sign than things will get worse for people in Hong Kong.

I think we should not view this as just a media issue, or just a problem in reporting China – this is everything changing.

"The storm in Hong Kong’s media is just the tip of the iceberg.”

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