Foreign Business Reporting: The Next Trend in Chinese Press Restriction?

Xi Jinping speaks to reporters in Hong Kong in 2008.

Xi Jinping, then Vice President, addresses reporters in Hong Kong in 2008. (AP/Vincent Yu)

In January 2014, Austin Ramzy joined dozens of  foreign correspondents from Reuters, Bloomberg, and The New York Times who have been denied Chinese visas or left perpetually waiting for renewals. The wave of denials follows a series of investigative stories, broken in the last 18 months, on high-level corruption within the Communist Party. Though visa delays are nothing new in that country, recent numbers have been staggering, and some experts believe they mark a new trend in Chinese press restriction: a growing fear of investigative business and economics reporting.

Communist Party leaders see corruption as a threat, and have repeatedly declared that they want to clean it up. But they also know that uncontrolled press exposure can lead to instability. International journalists pose a special problem because the Party cannot censor their work, which has gone much further than local reporting. Now, some say China is cracking down on visas in an effort to control the public dialogue on government finances—and corruption.

“People who used to report on things that were fairly dry and not particularly interesting to the Chinese government – numbers, data, information, currency flows – are now under scrutiny,” said Phelim Kine, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director and a former Dow Jones correspondent in China.

Traditionally, business reporters focused on topics like the opening up of China’s stock market, the country’s moves towards World Trade Organization compliance, and new investment from foreign companies. But in the last five years, these journalists have taken on a new role: investigating, according to Kine, “where all of this money is going and to whom it’s connected.”

The change stems in part from the bureaucracy’s heightened susceptibility to information leaks. Foreign journalists, who once faced huge barriers to access, are forging better connections in the country. Mitch Moxley, a former business correspondent at China Daily, said that when Bloomberg and The New York Times broke news of Wen Jiabao’s and Xi Jinping’s family wealth, rumors circulated in Beijing that key information had been provided to reporters by high-level officials.

“Those were power plays for sure between leaders in the Chinese government,” he said, “but ten years ago, nobody would have had those connections.”

Both The New York Times’ and Bloomberg’s websites were subsequently blocked in China, and foreign journalists have seen a wave of visa denials since. Though the reporters who actually broke the stories did not face visa intimidation this year, many of those who have run into trouble, including Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley, were denied visas while in the process of joining The New York Times. The additional paperwork required in their cases provided an excuse for denial.

“They are punishing the institution by targeting individuals who may not have anything to do with the stories in question,” said Kine, “which allows the Chinese government to have it both ways.”

The government has been particularly sensitive to scrutiny since Xi Jinping took office in November 2012. Having promoted himself as a champion of liberalization, Xi took many by surprise, once in power, by cracking down on activists, scholars, and local journalists—and, according to some observers, showing a particular sensitivity to economic criticism.

“It used to be that the taboo was political coverage. Now it seems that you can get into almost the same amount of trouble for covering financial issues in a way the government doesn’t like,” said Jim Chanos, a prominent short seller in financial markets who is now ‘betting against China.’  He sees a country with an inefficient economy, government debt, shadow banking, and corruption. And he thinks those stories need more attention.

Bob Dietz, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia program coordinator, agreed that while censorship and press restriction is nothing new in China, this regime has been particularly heavy handed.

“The Xi government has shown itself to be very controlling, with a desire to almost micromanage news coverage of sensitive issues,” he wrote in an email interview. International publication of “too many of those sorts of stories would undermine the already jaded sense of faith the Chinese people have in their government.”

Meanwhile, the Communist Party denies any suppression of press freedom. “Definitely, it is not the case,” said a spokesperson at the International Press Center, a division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, when asked about visa denials and increasing restrictions on business journalists who investigate corruption.. “There are 600 journalists working here, enjoying their working conditions and life here. They’re very happy,” she said.

CPJ’s Dietz provided a more nuanced interpretation of the Community Party’s policy.

“The government’s message has been: We know there is corruption, and we know that it must be cleaned up. But it will be the party, not the media, which will determine how to go about the task,” he wrote.

Dietz also noted that negative news can have serious economic impacts. With the growing power of social media to magnify any reporting, authorities must tread more carefully now than ever.

“This is the world’s only evolutionary Communist Party,” said the Human Rights Watch’s Kine. “It’s survived, and it understands it needs to control the narrative, it needs to ensure that information is limited, and it will do anything in its power to do that.”