Foreign journalists are under strict surveillance in China, Johnny Erling, correspondent for the daily 'Die Welt,' has told DW. He and other journalists sent a letter to the German chancellor asking for help.
Twenty-six German correspondents working in China sent a letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel. In it they describe how Chinese authorities are increasingly making it difficult for them to do their work, how their informants are threatened and their colleagues intimidated. The journalists asked the chancellor to consider this during inter-governmental consultations in Beijing and demand better working conditions.
DW: Considering the European debt crisis, Europe - and thus Germany as well - is dependent on Chinese help. How serious do you think Merkel will take the letter during the consultations?
Johnny Erling: Both sides need each other. This is the end of Wen Jiabao's term in office. He has put relations with Europe on his agenda and is surely just as interested in having the summit go well as the German chancellor is. So, the letter basically addresses both Angela Merkel and Wen Jiabao. It is supposed to be a signal and it aims at shedding light on the environment in which journalists are working.
In the correspondents' letter, one of the issues mentioned is that the Chinese colleagues they work with are often requested to spy on them. Can you confirm this?
That cannot be generally said. But it has happened to many colleagues - they have been called in (by state security) for questioning. As Chinese citizens, it is easier for them to be pressured. They are requested to pay attention to what the correspondents are doing and report it. That, of course, is not allowed, and the Chinese colleagues have refused to comply. But I think that is not the most important thing. What's more important in the letter is that it points out that the attempt to create freedom of opinion and of the press which began at the beginning of the 2008 Olympic Games is declining and has in many ways been compromised.
Since before the 2008 Olympics, all foreign journalists in China need to conduct an interview is the agreement of the interviewee. But in the letter to Merkel, the journalists point out gray areas in the rules which are indiscriminately interpreted. What do you mean by that?
The law that journalists only need the agreement of the interviewee was revoked in a number of critical cases - when there was some kind of trouble. In those cases, the journalists suddenly needed an official permit as well. If, for example, you wanted to talk to random people on the streets, you'd need a permit from the sub-district. The interview would be illegal without an official permit.
Which interferences have you experienced in your work in China?
It was really bad at the beginning of last year, during the Arab Spring. The authorities believed that the Arabian "virus" might spread to China, although there were no signs that it would. But during that time, my work was systematically hindered. I was prevented from speaking to people on the streets and even from just standing around outside and observing my surroundings. I was summoned before a police council.
Later that was all explained as an overreaction to a possible threat (but the restrictions were kept in place.) If, for example, we try to conduct research in a factory where workers are on strike, the authorities say we need permits. That has happened to a number of colleagues. It leads to an environment that is a complete legal vacuum and in which we are at the will of the authorities. That is one problem that has to be changed.
You have worked in Beijing for many years. Did journalists used to have more freedom?
When the political reform started in the late 70s, there was a spirit of optimism. People were more tolerant about certain things because they were all euphoric about change. Today, a lot of that positivity has given way to lack of transparency and fear. Because of that, restrictions have been implemented, despite the fact that China is much better off now than it was 10 or 20 years ago.
We used to be allowed to travel to Tibet. There were difficulties, but it was possible. I have been there a few times myself. Today no one can go there. Xinjiang province is another example of an area where there are a number of restrictions. In addition, there are a number of taboo topics over which people can really get into trouble if they talk about or try to research them. One of them is religious organizations like the Falun Gong sect.
On the other hand, Chinese society has opened up more, thanks to the internet and social networking sites like the Chinese Weibo. Information spreads much quicker, even if the state doesn't necessarily want it to. So many issues are uncovered today; people find out a lot of things they would never have known about not long ago - that has to be said. But all in all, a lot still needs to improve here.