China ranks amongst the worst countries for foreign journalists to work in. Deutsche Welle’s Beijing correspondent Ruth Kirchner explains how surveillance is a part of everyday working life in the People’s Republic.
China is not known as a country of press freedom or transparency. In a recent report by Reporters Without Borders, the People's Republic ranked 174th in the world and was followed only by countries such as Iran, Syria, Turkmenistan and North Korea. For foreign journalists working in China, it is often difficult to see how conditions are any different from those in other countries.
On a recent job, we were approaching a military checkpoint in the Tibetan part of Sichuan province, but were immediately told to turn around. I asked the young soldier why we were not allowed to proceed. He shrugged his shoulders, flipped through my passport in which he saw that I had a journalist's visa, and simply shook his head.
We found ourselves standing on a mountain road which wound off to faraway Tibet. Lhasa was still more than a thousand kilometers away. Tibet has long been off limits to foreign reporters, but even here, in Sichuan, roadblocks have been in place since 2009. This region saw riots break out as recently as last week, causing authorities to once again block the streets and bar access in order to paint the picture of their choice of events unfolding in the troubled region.
Such obtrusions and controls are a part of everyday life in China. It's almost impossible for me to go anywhere here without being recognized or monitored. Every hotel checks my visa and reports my journalist status to the authorities. It can be even trickier trying to get interviews. Anyone who has come under the watchful eye of the authorities will rarely give their time to foreign reporters.
"No interviews. I can’t talk right now," says the brother of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. "Now's not the time."
When a civil rights activist, or in this case just a Chinese citizen uses the phrase "bu fangbian," or in other words "not right now," then you should know that they probably have good reasons for not wanting to talk. Liu Xiaobo's family is closely monitored and their phones are tapped. Those of his family who still want to talk with us must be very careful. Some meetings with activists have an almost conspiratorial air; they have to be held at the back entrance to a hotel or in the protected surroundings of a teahouse.
And then there is the censorship. In China, you must always read between the lines, always ask yourself what exactly is not being reported. If you want to get all the information, you have to know the right code words on the Internet. Those who are invited "to drink tea" have usually been summoned by the Security Police. If something has been "harmonized," this means it has been censored.
And dealing with official state organs requires nerves of steel. Looking to simply call the press office of one of the government ministries? If only it were that easy. On most occasions, you put in countless calls and just as many faxes, and still receive no answer. For three weeks, I have tried in vain to obtain information on air pollution from the Beijing Environmental Protection Agency. It is a topic that has been covered in Chinese press on numerous occasions. So why wouldn’t the agency give me any information? It couldn’t have been because of censorship laws.
#b#Talking to foreign reporters in China, you find out that all of them experience difficulties. Often times, the international press is simply not invited to press conferences. But when they are invited, the answers given by government officials are often poor and uninformative.
When asked at a recent press conference about German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s agenda during her visit to China, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin replied: "Both countries will exchange opinions on bilateral relations and discuss how to expand and continue strategic cooperation." Not a very helpful response.
But China also has a different face. It can be warm, hospitable and open. On one assignment, I sat with farmers just outside of Beijing. It was a freezing cold day but they gave me a bed by the fire, the warmest spot in the house. While eating a simple, home-made meal, we talked and laughed about the state of Chinese politics. There were no taboo topics there. While many risk their lives to draw attention to ongoing repression and defend their dignity, others open their homes, and their hearts. "Mei banfa," they say - there is nothing that can be done.
Author: Ruth Kirchner / dfm
Editor: Sarah Berning