By Yaqiu Wang / CPJ Asia Research Associate
Zhang Lifan is a Beijing-based historian specializing in modern Chinese history. He is also an outspoken critic of the Chinese government who is interviewed regularly by the foreign press--even when it leads to harassment from officials. Last month alone, he was quoted in a New York Times article about the government revising the length of a war with Japan in history books, The Washington Post and Bloomberg in reports on President Xi Jinping's visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, The Associated Press on a story about U.S. President Donald Trump's inaugural speech, and by Voice of America in a piece on the government's crackdown on news websites.
The foreign media's frequent use of Zhang for expert opinion on a variety of China-related issues reflects a tough challenge for international journalists in China: it is becoming increasingly difficult to find citizens willing to speak to them. Many foreign media-friendly contacts, such as liberal scholars, reform-minded government officials, and civil society personnel now shun foreign news outlets, according to reports by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) and PEN America.
Several journalists covering China say there are still people willing to publicly express views, just not to the foreign press. "It is frustrating that smart, articulate people who, for example, post interesting views on Chinese social media, are then unwilling to speak with a foreign journalist. This happens routinely," said Nathan VanderKlippe, the Beijing-based Asia Bureau Chief of The Globe and Mail and a board member of the FCCC. A China correspondent for a Western news organization, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to comment, added, "Some outfits hire experienced Chinese staff to improve sourcing, but even they struggle, as working for foreign media brands you."
Chinese citizens' reluctance to speak with foreign news organizations is seen as a direct result of the government's retribution against its critics. The country is one of the leading jailers of journalists, with CPJ's latest prison census showing 38 imprisoned there in relation to their work. But sources also risk being questioned and detained by authorities. The FCCC, in its 2016 annual survey, shows that 26 percent of foreign journalists reported that their sources were "harassed, detained, questioned or punished at least once for speaking to them," and that "intimidation and harassment of sources" is a top concern for the foreign press corps in China. "Sources [in China] are taking a much greater risk and you can only give them very little in return," said the China correspondent with whom CPJ spoke.
Zhang said that he has been under continuous harassment for speaking to foreign media. "Officers would often wait outside of my apartment complex and when I go out by car, they would knock the car window and say, 'We've heard that you are going to give interviews to foreign media. We warn you not to do it,' " Zhang told CPJ. "It's very annoying." He added that his phone line has, on occasion, been cut off while foreign outlets interviewed him.
Wu Qiang, a former lecturer at Beijing's Tsinghua University, has also faced harassment. He told CPJ that in the six years he worked at the institution, university officials and police warned him not to talk to foreign media. In July 2015, Wu said, the university informed him that it would not review his contract due to him writing for and being interviewed by foreign news outlets.
CPJ called several phone numbers listed for Tsinghua University to seek comment, but the lines were busy. CPJ's calls to the Beijing Public Security Bureau went unanswered.
As well as warnings and surveillance, outspoken critics can face jail. In January 2015, police arrested democracy activist Qin Yongmin because he "[wrote] too many articles and gave interviews to foreign media," according to the human rights website Chinese Human Rights Defenders. He is still in prison. And Zhang Haitao, a Xinjiang-based rights activist, was sentenced in January last year to 19 years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power" and "providing intelligence overseas." The court verdict stated that "[Zhang] for a long time frequently colluded with foreign media and websites, actively giving interviews."
Punishing citizens for speaking to foreign media is in violation of China's laws. Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the country's constitution and laws regulating foreign media's activities in China stipulate that foreign journalists are free to interview Chinese citizens, as long as they consent.
The risks for those who agree to be interviewed by the foreign press is illustrated by the case of Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan language activist who featured in a New York Times video in November 2015 about him challenging Beijing's language policy in Tibet. Wangchuk's lawyer told The Times that he was detained early last year because of his contact with the paper's journalists. He is charged with inciting separatism, which can result in a 15-year prison sentence.
The Times said in an article about Wangchuk that he had "insisted that all his interviews be on the record and said he understood that they could potentially lead to his imprisonment."
Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokesperson for The Times, said to CPJ via email, "Our reporters and editors are sensitive to the risks sources and subjects face in countries where free speech is restricted and are cautious in how they handle related coverage."
The issue of how best to protect sources has led the journalists' community in China to work together to establish best practices. VanderKlippe said that the FCCC regularly organizes sessions in which foreign correspondents share their experiences and offer advice on how to navigate the tricky world of journalism in China.
The FCCC has also sought to work with the Chinese government to address its concerns. Although some officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the agency that oversees the operations of foreign media in China, have actively worked to enable foreign journalists' work, the Chinese government does not allow collective bargaining, according to VanderKlippe.
"The foreign ministry will refuse any meeting with the FCCC as an organization. They will only meet with individual journalists, who must say they have come to represent the interests of their media organizations alone, rather than the broader community of foreign journalists," he said.