Chinese officials have talent for harassing foreign correspondents
By Petteri Tuohinen
Those living in the barrack village set up for people who lost their homes in the earthquake in Sichuan Province had much to say to foreign journalists - until the police found out about the visitors, that is.
At the police station, there was no point in repeating to the police chief that under China’s new rules, foreign journalists are allowed to interview anyone they want, as long as the interviewee gives his or her consent.
The police chief insists that advance permission would have been required to interview a citizen.
The situation is a typical one. Even if a law has been passed, it is not necessarily of any significance. Arbitrary decisions by officials constantly impede the work of foreign journalists.
Foreign journalists do not have to spend much time in the countryside before a police officer or the men of the local party office show up to make their work more difficult. They are usually called to the scene by a someone who is faithful to the party.
If China’s reputation in the West is poor, part of it is the fault of the officials there, as it is extremely difficult to get an official viewpoint.
Even if the topic is not even particularly sensitive, it can sometimes take weeks to agree on an interview with an official.
Faxes are sent, followed up with calls. An interview is promised, maybe, if the director has the time to spare. Often this is not the case, and only the top figures are allowed to speak.
Foreign correspondents in China usually get official comments from press conferences at the Foreign Ministry. Every now and then, East and West do not meet.
“China has no dissidents”, said a Foreign Ministry spokesman earlier this year when about Liu Xiaobo, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Data security is something that should be taken very seriously in China. Foreign journalists and their aides have been sent e-mails with spyware embedded in their attachments.
There is reason to conclude that such messages are sent by officials.
In sensitive meetings, it is a good idea to remove the battery from one’s mobile phone to prevent officials from eavesdropping, or pinpointing the location of the discussion with the help of the journalist’s phone.
Meetings sometimes need to be planned carefully, lest the police interfere with the interview.
Cars need to be switched.
A hat or a hood can make it harder to identify a person as a foreigner.
It is a good idea to check in as late as possible into a hotel, as information of a guest with a journalist’s visa is routinely passed on to local police.
The actions of officials primarily just make the work of foreign journalists more laborious.
Real difficulties can be incurred by Chinese who are interviewed, or who assist the foreign media.
Security officials are constantly inviting aides for tea to ask them what their employers have done.
In spite of everything, many Chinese want to speak openly, because they have a dream of a more democratic China.
This year all foreign journalists have been invited for a meeting at the Foreign Ministry.
The biggest pressure has been placed on those who ask critical questions at press conferences. Active members of the foreign journalist association have had a hard time.
The Chinese have also tried to develop relations with the foreign media by organising press conferences on different subjects.
Recently there was an opportunity to hear about the gripping official views of “the drafting of Marxist classics, translations, and research, as well as other activities of the Central Collection and the translation bureau”.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 20.12.2010
Previously in HS International Edition:
Chinese Nobel candidate silenced by 11-year prison term (8.10.2010)
COMMENTARY: Thinking along other lines (12.10.2010)
EDITORIAL: China´s self-confidence proves illusory
PETTERI TUOHINEN / Helsingin Sanomat