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How to report on China from outside the country

Taiwan
Taipei is considered the next best option for reporting on China without being on the ground. Bruno Kaufmann/swissinfo.ch

Chinese authorities are pushing out foreign journalists. Many have relocated to Taiwan, raising the question of how to report on a country when not actually there. Most Swiss media, however, can still work inside China. 

“Welcome to our club,” William Yang greets me at the café in Taipei. I’m here to attend an event at the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents’ Club.

Yang, a Taiwanese journalist, is president of the club, which over the past two years has transformed from a few local and foreign journalists reporting about Taiwan to an international media hub for journalists covering all of East Asia, including China.

Yang
William Yang, East Asia Correspondent for DW and President of the Taiwan Foreign Correspondent Club. Bruno Kaufmann

“A few years ago we had maybe five or six international journalists accredited, now there are at least ten times as many,” he says. A few minutes into our meeting, colleagues from the New York Times, The Economist, National Public Radio (NPR) and the Los Angeles Times arrive.

From Beijing to Taipei

Since 2019, many major international news outlets have had to move their China office from Beijing to Taipei, considered the next best option for reporting on China without being on the ground. Taiwan is a Chinese-speaking democracy. Four out of five Taiwanese – the island has a population of 23 million – speak Mandarin or “Huayu” (Taiwanese Mandarin) as it is referred to here.

2019 was the year Covid-19 arrived in China. It was also when the Chinese government, led by President Xi Jinping, started its fiercest crackdown on free speech and freedom of the press.

Whistleblowers and any dissident voices to the official Party narrative on the virus were silenced. China’s radical zero-Covid strategy meant cities were locked down for weeks, if not months. People leaving the country weren’t sure if they could re-enter – and if they did, it was at the cost of stressful quarantines and uncertainties as to when they could actually return home. 

Many journalists struggled to get their visa renewed, forcing international media to rethink their China coverage and how to operate their Beijing bureaus with fewer staff. In some cases they left the country completely, deciding that the cost of reporting from mainland China – increased surveillance of foreign correspondents, limited access to sources and harassment of assistants – wasn’t worth it.

A report by the Foreign Correspondents club of China published in 2021 paints a dire picture of reporting in the country. Called “locked out or kicked out”, it lists various tactics used to intimidate journalists. These include online trolling, physical assaults, cyber-hacking and visa denials. 

Today China ranks near the bottom of the 2022 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders: 175 out of 180 countries. Meanwhile Taiwan, in the same ranking, has consolidated its pole position as the freest place to report from in East Asia. 

cafe
The Wine Café in Taipei plays host to a gathering of foreign correspondents. Bruno Kaufmann/swissinfo.ch

Nevertheless, what understanding can the West have of China when more and more journalists are leaving? After all, China is the world’s second-largest economic power, has a population of 1.4 billion and is becoming increasingly important in geopolitical terms. 

“We considered many possible spots before deciding to re-establish our regional office here in Taipei,” says Sebastian Stryhn Kjeldtoft, Asia correspondent for Danish newspaper Politiken. “Ideally we wanted to go back to Beijing, but we were discouraged from doing so by the Chinese Embassy in Copenhagen.”

Swiss reputation helps

It’s also in Taipei that the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) decided to base its “geopolitics correspondent”. This is a new posting for the Swiss newspaper, with the aim of covering strategic developments in the Indo-Pacific region.

“Ten years ago the NZZ would certainly have gone to Beijing, five years ago Hong Kong would have been our first choice, but now we opted for Taipei,” says Patrick Zoll, former Asia Editor in Zurich who opened the newspaper’s bureau in Taipei a few months ago. But in contrast to most Anglo-Saxon media organisations, Swiss media still have foreign correspondents inside China. 

Correspondents
Patrick Zoll who works for the Swiss media outlet NZZ (left) and Sebastian Stryhn Kjeldtoft with the Danish daily Politiken (right). Bruno Kaufmann

“As a representative of the Swiss media, I still enjoy a relatively high reputation. That may have something to do with Switzerland’s neutrality,” says NZZ correspondent Matthias Kamp, who is working from China for the third time since 1990. “Today people are really asking themselves whether it wouldn’t be better to work from somewhere other than Beijing. Here everybody is nervous and scared. My requests for interviews are simply not answered any more.” 

While reporting from within China has a price – Kamp says every conversation, even the one with me via Teams, is read and recorded by the authorities – there’s a backdoor to reporting on China from outside the country. “The Wall Street Journal now does its China coverage with eight people from Singapore. I’m not sure how well this works,” he says. 

Everyday stories

One “solution” for media organisations and correspondents based outside China is to have local news stringers (freelancers). Some bureaus have also kept a Chinese assistant on staff. They can’t report, but they help – and are under constant pressure from the authorities, according to Kamp. Kamp himself is in permanent contact with the Swiss embassy and ambassador in Beijing. “If something were to happen to me, that would help,” he says.

His colleagues from Swiss public broadcaster, SRF, moved their bureau from Beijing to Shanghai. Samuel Emch, SRF radio’s East Asia correspondent, appreciates the relative openness of the harbour city. “Shanghai has a better quality of life than Beijing and is also a bit ‘freer’ than the capital,” he says. 

In spite of all the restrictions and limitations on foreign media in today’s China, Emch appreciates the vicinity to Chinese society. “I can’t really imagine reporting on China from outside China. I would lack the feeling for everyday stories. Reportage from the provinces, for example, would become almost impossible.”

Democratic awakening?

This winter Emch reported on a series of protests against the zero-Covid policy, the first sign of open opposition in years. “Many people saw the wave of protests to lift the government’s strict zero-Covid policy as a small liberation. I met people on the street who suddenly put aside their fear and wanted to talk to you.”

More

After the protests, China surprisingly ended its zero-Covid policy in November. Flights to and from the country have since resumed and quarantine is no longer mandatory. Whether this will mean more access to China for foreign correspondents is still up in the air.

Some clarity may occur as the National People’s Congress in Beijing starts on March 5. “I’ve just submitted my accreditation to the National People’s Congress and we’re now waiting for a response,” Kamp says. Last autumn, when the 20th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party took place, his application to cover Xi Jinping’s opening speech remained unanswered by the authorities. 

When I asked the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs how many foreign reporters are still accredited in China, I was asked to fax my questions. I’m still waiting for an answer.

Edited by Virginie Mangin/ts
 

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