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China: a country that is becoming increasingly difficult to see through, even for journalists and researchers


Bans on reporters and tough political crackdowns make reporting difficult, even when it comes to everyday events.

Bans on reporters and tough political crackdowns make reporting difficult, even when it comes to everyday events.

  • Working as a journalist in China is becoming more and more difficult: Beijing is increasing the pressure on foreign press.

  • Researchers are also silenced and their own scientists are put under pressure.

  • The reduced reporting leads to an anti-Chinese mood in the West - the Communist Party shouldn't care.

  • This article is available in German for the first time - it was first published on May 27, 2021 by the magazine "Foreign Policy".

Washington / Beijing - Writing about China has never been easy. But nowadays access to land and people is even more complicated. Good sources are more difficult to access than they have been for decades. The pandemic made the situation worse: China's borders have been closed to most foreigners since March 2020. The consequence: It is more difficult than ever for outsiders and even most Chinese to follow developments in the country.

As a journalist, you run the risk of being targeted by the Chinese government, which is constantly introducing new measures.

Beijing uses the visa procedure as a means of political pressure: the authorities can either extend the residence permit for six months - or cancel it without explanation.

As a foreign reporter, you can be arrested at any time;

for Chinese journalists, the risk is even greater.

For example,


reporter Haze Fan

experienced this first hand in 2020


As a journalist in China: Beijing is increasing the pressure on the foreign press

As reported by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China, the Beijing government expelled at least 18 foreign journalists in the first half of 2020. The authorities recently deported the BBC reporter John Sudworth, who works for a well-known news agency - together with his wife Yvonne Murray, who works as a reporter for the Irish broadcaster RTE. Sudworth was one of the few people who had access to the "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. With his reporting he made the events there accessible to a global audience.

A foreign journalist can no longer count on being better protected from reprisals than his Chinese colleagues.

The freedoms of investigative journalists are increasingly curtailed in China.

Like many other China correspondents from major news agencies, Sudworth now works from Taiwan.

Other colleagues have moved to Hong Kong or have left the region entirely.

Without access to the land, it becomes much more difficult to tap into sources.

Megha Rajagopalan, journalist at

Buzzfeed News

, knows about these challenges. After living in Beijing for seven years, her visa application was denied in 2018. She still writes about Xinjiang - which she believes is the reason she was expelled from the country - but admits that her hands are tied in the current situation. "I can only speak to a limited number of people who have left China and settled elsewhere with stable immigration status," she said. “Often the information we get about what is going on on site is a bit out of date.” The coverage of Xinjiang is based on the few who have managed to leave China. This makes it more difficult to get an idea of ​​the experiences of the general average.

In China, fewer and fewer reports can be produced on site - researchers are also being silenced

Local insights play a major role in China.

The government often first tests its programs before making the decision to implement measures on a large scale.

The limited number of sources and poor access to information make this process more difficult to track.

In 2014, for example, Beijing banned the wearing of Islamic headscarves and beards in public places in Karamay, a city in northern Xinjiang.

Three years later, the ban became law across the region.

As there are fewer and fewer reports on site, it is becoming more difficult to keep your finger on the pulse of the country, to assess changes early on and to provide a detailed, up-to-date picture of the situation.

China has also silenced researchers. Michael Kovrig is a Canadian researcher from the International Crisis Group. He is in solitary confinement on charges of espionage. China has held him hostage along with another Canadian for over two years after Canada arrested Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. In April, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) banned other European academics and researchers from entering the country. Chinese citizens and organizations are also prohibited from doing business with blacklisted individuals.

In the meantime, China may already be pursuing a new strategy: Chinese companies are suing for defamation against the German anthropologist Adrian Zenz.

Those responsible have asked a Chinese court to ban Zenz from researching Xinjiang and to order him to pay damages to the companies.

Even if it's just a charade, the story has a pretty chilling effect on anyone wishing to visit China for research purposes.

Research on protest movements in China: since Xi Jinping in power, work has become more and more difficult

Christian Göbel is a professor at the University of Vienna who deals with protest movements in China. He reports that his field research trips around the country have become more and more unproductive since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. He has since been forced to conduct group interviews with local officials and citizens rather than one-on-one. Everyone who worked for the party started using prepackaged notes at some point, he said.

Like other academics, Göbel is now trying to overcome these obstacles by creative means. He is now collecting extensive data sets on Chinese social media platforms. This enables him to better understand how people feel about the government's performance and how they express their opinions. This type of research counteracts the hackneyed cliché that the CCP rules over a population without an opinion of its own, and forever subordinate to its rule.

But Göbel also adds that this approach raises new problems: "Social media tend to dramatize grievances, so that in the end a less favorable picture of the situation often emerges that overemphasizes the negative sides," he says.

Nowadays, academics like Göbel find it difficult to access high-quality research data on site.

For his work, this means: more differentiated and complex points of view, which may not make it into social media, remain largely hidden.

Communist Party pressure on its own academics - affects the reliability of analyzes

The Chinese government is also infiltrating the research work carried out by its own institutions. China has always had a credibility problem due to incidents of plagiarism and forgery. But the pressure of the CCP is also forcing the social science faculties into a thematic dead end. Goebel says there is no longer a gray area in which the Chinese academics can move. According to his observations, the Chinese colleagues are now writing significantly more papers on topics such as the ideas of Xi Jinping or the value of Marxism. According to Göbel, this affects the reliability of the analyzes that are carried out in the country itself.

A motion was submitted to the CCP earlier this year, apparently recognizing that the culture of oppression severely affects academic research. However, it is unclear whether there is scope for reform in this area. Jia Qingguo is employed as an academic at Beijing University. He criticizes the regulations of some institutions, which stipulate that two university employees must always approve a meeting between a Chinese academic and a non-Chinese. The regulations that prevent Chinese academics from meeting the same foreigner more than twice a year are also a thorn in his side. He also criticizes the obligation to report after each such meeting. Jia is unusually open about his complaints.But at least at the moment he doesn't seem to be able to move anything with it.

China's advances in data transparency are honorable.

However, there is a large horse's foot.

The country publishes more figures than ever before - on court decisions, consumption and other habits.

As a result, the world gains insights that would previously have been unthinkable.

But that shouldn't hide the fact that the open data project is not being led by a transparent government.

When doing research, journalists often have to dig deep to get the information they need.

No surprise Beijing refused to provide data to WHO on COVID-19 outbreak

Unsurprisingly, in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, Beijing refused to provide raw patient data to the World Health Organization - a routine process considered standard in the international community. Naturally, it is rare for information to leak out, because the CCP does not shy away from publicly cracking down on journalists like Gao Yu and locking them up. The critic of the regime was highly regarded in China before she was accused of providing a news agency with a document describing the ideological orientation of the Xi government. It is very likely that valuable sources like these will run dry more and more - which clearly shows us the limits of the data revolution: the data is also subordinate to the party.

During the reform years and after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, articles about China helped the world's population to perceive the country in a more nuanced way. Because such everyday stories no longer reach us, our image of China is often reduced to its authoritarian government. Yangyang Cheng has been doing research at Yale Law School since completing her doctorate. In your opinion, today's global community looks too one-sidedly at the geopolitical dimension of China. This worldview has supplanted a more humane and subtle view of the land.

“The current assessments place too much emphasis on the fabled power of the Chinese government.

In doing so, people unwittingly support the image that the Communist Party wants to convey, ”she says.

"This helps the Chinese government to expand its control in the country and strengthen its international status."

China: Reduced reporting leads to anti-Chinese sentiment in the West - and anti-Asian racism

Stories of acceptance, resistance and everything in between are circulating in China. These narratives play an important role in the political reactions. Policymakers who value China as a country with real people and culture are likely to make better, less reactionary choices. While Mike Pompeo proclaims that the Taiwanese pineapple is a symbol of freedom, thinking in black and white leads us to view everything that comes from China with suspicion.

The reduced coverage has contributed to an anti-Chinese sentiment in the West, where racial hatred crimes against Asians are on the rise. Paradoxically, this plays into the hands of the CCP, who thereby traps Chinese minorities abroad, arguing that the West cannot forget its old prejudices against China.

How should we write, report and speak more fairly about China?

It is almost impossible to come up with constructive suggestions as the facts available have always been very shaky.

Up until now it has always been difficult to filter out trustworthy facts from a web of censorship, conspiracy theories or a lack of interest in the truth.

Anyone who, like many other people, demands more diplomatic skills overlooks the fact that the Chinese government itself has done most to damage China's image in the West.

The only problem is that the CCP probably doesn't care.

by James Thorpe

James Thorpe

writes about law and politics.

This article was first published in English on May 27, 2021 in the magazine “” - as part of a cooperation, a translation is now also

 available to




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Also read:

A withdrawal from China is out of the question for European companies - despite geopolitical tensions with the People's Republic.

On the contrary: you want to expand.

Source: merkur

All news articles on 2021-06-10

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