China blames foreign reporters for bad press abroad
Authorities routinely accuse China's 900 foreign reporters -- a record number, accredited to more than 400 media organisations -- of covering China in a negative way. The journalists, meanwhile, complain of regular hindrance to their work.
The issue came to the fore at a forum in Beijing this February, where media representatives from China — which operates a vast censorship system over the press — and France gathered to try and iron out their differing views.
"It is not that China is against critical reporting," said Wang Chen, minister in charge of the press office at the State Council, China’s cabinet.
"What we don’t accept are double standards based on a Cold War mentality," he told French ambassador Sylvie Bermann, who had just highlighted the importance of journalists being allowed to report stories on the ground.
Foreign reporters in China are sometimes blocked from going to breaking news spots, despite official regulations that allow them to travel freely and to interview anyone who gives their consent.
Earlier this month, for instance, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) — an illegal organisation in the eyes of Chinese authorities — complained about working conditions for reporters in Tibetan-inhabited areas.
Journalists trying to get to areas hit by deadly unrest in Sichuan province were repeatedly turned back by police, and authorities in those regions cut web and phone communications, making reporting on the issue near impossible.
On Thursday, the FCCC also issued a warning to journalists wanting to cover a revolt against local officials by villagers in east China after a Dutch reporter was beaten up by thugs who appeared to be plainclothes police.
Chinese authorities often complain to Western media of their "negative" coverage, pointing to too many stories on dissidents, protests, social unrest, pollution and not enough on China’s economic and cultural achievements.
These concerns surfaced at the forum, organised by the China Institute — a non-profit French organisation created in 2009 that says it aims to foster better understanding of China — and by official Chinese partners.
"For the French media, China has become an autocratic country with strong economic growth," lamented Cui Hongjian of the China Institute of International Studies.
"We must provide more positive information to the public," added Wang Fang, deputy head of the international section of the People’s Daily newspaper, the Communist Party mouthpiece.
Erik Izraelewicz, director of French newspaper Le Monde, retorted that a journalist "should not have to judge whether news is negative or positive, just whether there is any news".
"Our mission is to inform," he added.
The Chinese government is making efforts to push the nation’s various ministries, administrations and local authorities to be more open and better respond to the needs of the foreign press.
"We have a project to train officials to talk to the media," said Cui.
Authorities in some sensitive areas of China such as the northwestern Xinjiang region, which is regularly hit by ethnic unrest, have let foreign journalists in under strict surveillance — in stark contrast to Tibetan-inhabited areas.
These improvements come as China tries to better its image abroad — particularly since 2008, when riots in Tibet and a crackdown on dissent in the run-up to the Olympic Games badly dented what could have been a public relations victory.
Beijing is spending billions of dollars to extend the reach of its state media — such as the Xinhua news agency, CCTV television or the People’s Daily — and of its Confucius institutes, designed to promote Chinese language and culture.
And while China’s 9,884 newspapers, 1,600 television channels and 2,000 radios operate under strict surveillance, some of the more liberal press and the hugely popular social media platforms push the limits of censorship day by day.
Large numbers of smart, young people graduate from journalism school in China every year, and many speak fluent English.
"There are 900 journalism schools in China that train between 50,000 and 60,000 young journalists every year," said Zhou Qing’an of Tsinghua University.
But foreign media organisations are not allowed to recruit them to work as reporters — a regulation that forum participants said should change, as they could help promote better understanding of their nation.