Survey: Foreign Correspondents in China Obstructed, Surveilled, and Harassed

Police with drones
The authorities have even begun using drones to spy on foreign correspondents. (Source: IMAGO / CFOTO)

China uses harassment and restrictions to keep a tight rein on domestic news outlets – but as a new survey of foreign correspondents working in the country shows, reporting by international outlets was also massively obstructed by the authorities in 2023.

In the 2023 report issued by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), 99 percent of the journalists surveyed said that reporting conditions in China “rarely or never met international reporting standards.” Conditions have not returned even to the low level of press freedom that prevailed before the pandemic.

“The results of this year’s survey show significant obstacles remain for independent reporting in China, especially in the form of heightened intimidation and surveillance, both in-person and through more sophisticated digital means,” the FCCC writes in the report.

Four out of five respondents reported experiencing interference, harassment, or violence. More than half had been obstructed by police or other officials at least once; 45 percent had their reporting obstructed by unknown persons.

To create the report the FCCC polled its correspondent members in January and February of this year. Of 157 members, 101 responded. The journalists surveyed represent news organizations in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. The FCCC publishes the survey once a year. Similar problems were reported in 2022.

Xinjiang and Tibet Off Limits

Obstruction of reporting was particularly common in parts of the country that the Chinese authorities regard as “politically sensitive.” Sensitive regions include Xinjiang, where the Uighur minority is subject to state repression and where the state likes to test out new surveillance technology.

According to the survey, 85 percent of foreign reporters who tried to report from Xinjiang encountered problems – such as surveillance and harassment. Foreign correspondents traveling to sensitive areas were subject to strict controls; access to Tibet in particular is restricted to state-organized tours.

A journalist working for a European news outlet claimed to have been followed by “half a dozen plainclothes” police during his trip to Xinjiang. Another journalist, also working for a European outlet, said, “During a week-long trip in Xinjiang, police officers came to my hotel to ask who I had interviewed and what I had asked them. They demanded I show them a letter from my embassy several times; otherwise I would not be allowed to work there.” The reporter subsequently decided to stop reporting in that area out of concern for the safety of those they were interviewing.

Foreign correspondents were subject to similar repressive measures in Tibet. Three of the reporters surveyed had attempted to report from the region – all three said they had experienced issues.

Reporters making research trips who didn’t encounter restrictions were the exception. The authorities have now also begun to regard areas bordering Russia, Mongolia, and countries in Southeast Asia as sensitive, and to prevent foreign reporters from freely reporting from these regions as well.

Journalists traveling to border regions were harassed by authorities or men in plainclothes. Film crews were ordered to stop filming and delete footage. Correspondents gave reports of being followed on trips through the countryside by several cars for hundreds of kilometers; others reported efforts to intimidate sources and interrupt interviews.

The authorities also deployed new forms of technology to monitor the reporting of foreign outlets. A journalist working for a European outlet reported: “On a recent trip to two different provinces covering the link between climate change and extreme weather events we were followed by multiple carloads of plain clothes officers. Drones were sent out to follow and observe us when we got out of our vehicle to film/collect interviews. When we moved on foot to a spot, the drones would follow us.”

No Visas for US Correspondents

Another way the Chinese authorities attempt to control who reports from the country is by granting (and refusing to grant) visas. Even though the borders are officially open again, many correspondents were refused the necessary journalist visa and residence permit. Journalists from the United States were particularly affected.

In some cases this has resulted in staffing shortages: when foreign reporters leave the country, they can’t always be replaced. Almost a third of survey respondents said their bureau was understaffed because they haven’t been able to hire enough new reporters.

Still, 87 percent of those respondents who were already accredited said that they were able to renew their press credentials and residence permits in 2023 without difficulty. Two respondents however spoke of attempts at intimidation made during the renewal process: “The person from the [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] told me that on several occasions I had crossed the red line, e.g. by saying that China has an authoritarian government. Also, the person said that I was involved in separatist activities – by interviewing a researcher who works on Xinjiang.” During the conversation the official repeatedly brought up BBC reporter John Sudworth, who was forced to leave China in 2021.

Chinese Colleagues Threatened

Chinese employees of foreign news organizations were subject to increased intimidation attempts, the FCCC reports. There was only a “slight uptick” in the number of such incidents, but the increase is still concerning, the FCCC notes. Chinese staff “do not enjoy the protection that a foreign passport lends, putting them at significantly higher risk” of encountering state pressure and intimidation.

49 percent of respondents said that their Chinese colleagues had been harassed or intimidated at least once in 2023. In 2022 the number was 45 percent, in 2021 40 percent. Finding Chinese staff has become increasingly difficult as a result.

Potential sources were also pressured. “A significant shift in recent years has been observed where academic sources, think tank employees and analysts either decline interviews, request anonymity, or don’t respond at all,” the FCCC writes.

82 percent of correspondents surveyed said their sources had refused to give interviews because they weren’t permitted to speak to foreign media or would need to obtain prior permission. 37 percent had reporting trips or confirmed interviews cancelled at short notice because of official pressure.

On the Press Freedom Index maintained by Reporters without Borders, Mainland China is ranked 179 out of 180 countries – followed only by North Korea. Hong Kong is ranked separately and has slid down to 140. (hcz)