‘You can’t report here’: doing journalism in China

Rob Schmitz Nov 3, 2015

‘You can’t report here’: doing journalism in China

Rob Schmitz Nov 3, 2015

This essay was originally published on October 28, 2015. 

After interviewing coal miners all day, I thought it was a good time to call Longmay, the company that was laying off 100,000 of its workers, and the government of Qitaihe, a city that would feel the impact of a surge of unemployed workers from several of its coal mines.

“Where are you? How long have you been here?” asked the Longmay official over the phone. “Just stay put. We’ll be right there!”

Within minutes, they arrived. A Longmay public affairs officer named Zhang came first. His handshake was limp, and he squinted at me skeptically when I told him who I was and why I had come to town. “Marketplace? I’ve never heard of such a program,” he said slowly, inspecting my official press card as if it were a counterfeit bill.

“We can’t do an interview, I’m afraid,” Zhang said, waving his hand. “But if you come with me to dinner tonight and then take an overnight train with me to Harbin where our headquarters are, maybe someone there will talk with you.”

Harbin was a 10-hour train ride away. Zhang, I suspected, was under the impression that I had just arrived to town, and he was trying to eat up my time so that I couldn’t speak to the company’s miners who had been laid off. I politely declined, telling him that I’d prefer to call his manager when I returned to Shanghai. I left him in the hotel lobby and waited for the elevator to take me to my room. Zhang ran after me, and as the door opened, he threw himself inside, insisting I take the train with him.

“No thanks,” I said, getting off on my floor. He followed me to my room, took note of the room number and then left.

Minutes later, Qitaihe Foreign Affairs Officer Wang Hongbing knocked on my door. He, too, declined an interview request.

“Show me your press card right now!” he demanded loudly.

“May I see your business card?” I asked Wang.

“I don’t have one,” he answered.

“Then there’s no need to see my press card,” I told him.

He said he’d come back with the police.

Later that evening, two officers arrived with Wang. This time, he showed me his identification badge, and I showed them my press card.

“When are you leaving Qitaihe?” Wang asked, exasperated.

“That’s none of your business,” I replied.

“Yes, you are right. But tomorrow morning, you can’t report here,” Wang announced.

“It’s not in your power to tell me that,” I said. “I’ve got a press card, and I can legally report here.”

Wang switched to English: “No! No! No!” he yelled.

I carry a copy of the “Regulations of the People’s Republic of China Concerning Reporting Activities of Permanent Offices of Foreign Media Organizations and Foreign Journalists” with me for times like this. I showed it to Wang. I directed him to article number 17:

“Foreign journalists wishing to interview organizations or individuals in China need to obtain their prior consent. Foreign journalists shall carry and present their Press Card (R) or Journalist Visas for Short Visit during reporting activities.”

Wang read it carefully. He looked up. “You are not allowed to interview anyone from Longmay,” he announced.

            “I can if I have their prior consent,” I said, correcting him.

            “No, you can’t.”

            “Yes, I can.”

            “Well you can talk about this with the police. More of them will be here tomorrow,” Wang said before he left.

In fact, it didn’t matter to me. I had already interviewed Longmay’s miners earlier that day, and I had plans to leave Qitaihe early the next morning. But the episode was yet another example of surveillance I had attracted on recent trips to other parts of China, one of them that had ended when a caravan of several unmarked security cars chased my car out of a village whose residents were in the shadow of one of the country’s largest petrochemical plants.

Two unmarked police cars follow our China Correspondent to the airport. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace) 

“Unfortunately, getting access to the news in China is not getting any easier,” read a 2015 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Official harassment, obstruction and intimidation of foreign correspondents and their local staff remain serious problems.”

Ninety-six percent of foreign journalist respondents in China said working conditions in China almost never meet international standards. Forty-four percent said working conditions were about the same as last year, and 33 percent said conditions had deteriorated. None of the 117 respondents said conditions had improved. Perhaps most telling, more than 72 percent of respondents reported interference or obstruction by police or unidentified individuals while reporting in China, up from about two-thirds last year.

Back in Qitaihe, Foreign Affairs Officer Wang stormed off with the police officers, I shut my door and went to sleep, and the next morning, two black cars followed me to the airport and waited outside. They were still there when my plane took off, making sure the foreign journalist was gone.

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