Letters from readers also reach you in faraway China. Most of them now arrive digitally, but some readers still write real letters. Last year a reader sent me a postcard with the Japanese word karōshi: death by overwork. My boss thought that was particularly funny. The card has been hanging over my desk since then.
Among the letters there is praise, but of course also criticism. Including the accusation that we write too negatively about China. The allegation is not new. It is often raised by the authorities: The Communist Party (KP) sees itself as a victim of foreign media. The state press laments an anti-Chinese conspiracy. China’s former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is said to have asked Angela Merkel to please put the German press in its place, in the interests of German-Chinese friendship, of course. The Chancellor had given up. All he has to do is have what is being written about her translated. Then Wen would quickly realize that the Chancellor has no influence on German journalists either.
What you write about as a reporter in China has changed a lot in the past few decades. As a correspondent, you are no longer just responsible for mapping the changes in politics and society. Rather, one accompanies the rise of a new superpower – with all tensions and conflicts. Here in Beijing we sometimes argue quite violently among colleagues about our assessment.
The CP presents its system of surveillance and growth as an alternative to democracy and a market economy
In the past people wrote about China and meant a developing country on the way to modernization. Today people write about China and look at a state that exerts immense influence on the world – including Germany, where freedom is the benchmark. Because the Chinese government has long since begun to influence the situation beyond its borders. The Communist Party presents its system of surveillance and growth as an alternative to democracy and a market economy, weakens human rights, undermines international organizations, and divides the EU.
It has never been more important to understand China and its rulers. The dilemma is: it has never been so difficult. Politically, the climate has worsened since party leader Xi Jinping took office in 2012. Non-governmental organizations have had to give up or are under close scrutiny, preferring to stay away from sensitive issues. Professors are instructed to stop speaking to foreign media. Last year a dozen historians declined interview requests on a play on the 100th anniversary of the May 4th Movement, the first mass political movement in China. Only after weeks did a researcher agree, but out of fear he was only quoted without a name. The pressure is now so high that it is difficult to find interview partners even with politically undisputed topics or successful projects of the KP.
Activists who want to speak must be afraid of being arrested. Comprehensive monitoring of social media and messenger services also makes it almost impossible to protect informants. Even if you leave your cell phone at home to do research: no matter where you go, your passport number is saved, your face is scanned and movement data is recorded. In many places, the watchdogs are already waiting when you get off the train. They know where to fly and what stories to work on. Sometimes you have no choice but to pull the telephone cable out of the wall in your hotel room and push a chest of drawers in front of the door, if you want to have at least a few hours of peace from the uninvited visitors.
Hardly anywhere are so many journalists in prison as in China
In Reporters Without Borders’ worldwide ranking of press freedom, China has now fallen to one of the bottom places. Hardly anywhere more journalists are in jail. Numerous journalists and citizen journalists were arrested and kidnapped during the Corona crisis. Even if the immediate danger for international correspondents is significantly lower, the pressure on them also increases. Sometimes journalists only receive short-term visas with a term of one month. It used to be twelve. In the first half of the year alone, China had a record 17 foreign journalists by canceling their accreditation.
On the night train, a fellow traveler recently asked me whether I, as a foreign journalist, would be subject to censorship like my Chinese colleagues, i.e. whether the authorities would have to approve my texts before they were printed in Germany. He knows the list of taboos is long. In the end, the train compartment sat together, Chinese from all parts of the country talked about their experiences with state censorship. In a village a day’s journey from Beijing, where there is neither running water nor a school, a farmer asked me if I could tell him what the government was removing from the Internet. He noticed that more and more was disappearing. Anything important that he should know about?
Many people have gotten used to the censorship, so they are still a long way from agreeing to it. I have been followed several times by watchdogs in rural areas. And my drivers, whom I usually only get to know at the train station, then accelerate. “Come on, let’s hang them out,” they say and turn into the next side street.
Journalists are certainly not superheroes. But if someone loses their child because a company sold contaminated vaccines or because there was sloppy construction work, it should be written down. In provinces, government officials often react aggressively because they want to prevent research from drawing the central government’s attention to grievances in their region. That could cost her head. A colleague recently said that she had arrived in a village and the residents shouted: “The journalists are finally here!”
At the same time, the government is making it increasingly clear where it is drawing the red line. It marks topics that Beijing does not want to read: Xinjiang, Tibet and stories about the Chinese leader and party leader Xi Jinping. Corona has also been on the list this year. In August, the State Department sent out a 43-page document telling correspondents how to report on Hong Kong. If the Chinese government has its way, journalists should spread “positive energy”. Don’t be a complainer, but a cheerleader in politics.
Interview with doctors only under state supervision
The Communist Party has long preferred to tell its own story. In China, but also internationally. To do this, it pumps billions into foreign broadcasters, invests in media collaborations and is active with its own accounts in social networks. It became clear at the beginning of the year in Wuhan that this can have serious consequences. A day before the region was cordoned off, many people in the city had no idea how serious the situation is. The authorities had not reported any new cases for two weeks because of a local people’s congress. The media preferred to speak of rumors than to warn people about the spread of the coronavirus. The only recordings from the city were provided by the state media after the lockdown. They should calm down. Doctors from Wuhan could only be interviewed under the supervision of state security forces.
Most foreign media outlets only employ one or two correspondents in China. My reporting area comprises a fifth of the world’s population, the region is larger than the European continent. I am writing about a country where hundreds of millions of people live the equivalent of a few euros a week, where most millionaires live, and where the world’s largest tech companies are based. Plus Xinjiang, the major conflict between the USA and China. And Hong Kong, where I spent months last year and followed the street battles through the plexiglass of my gas mask. It’s an almost impossible task.
There can be no claim to completeness, which is why I sometimes defiantly refer to myself as a Beijing correspondent. That would mean that I would still be responsible for 20 million people, twice as many people as there are in Austria or Israel. My job seems particularly impossible to me when my colleagues ask me what the Chinese think about a certain topic. Just think of any topic, let’s take the mask requirement in German supermarkets, and then tell me what the Germans think about it. And you are only pigeonholing 80 million people, I 1.4 billion.
I travel across the country, talk to experts, to my neighbors, to friends. And I read a lot on the net. But just as individual posts on social media in Germany do not reflect the mood, a look at social networks in China does not provide any impression of the situation in the country. There is also censorship there. Perhaps a topic is discussed because many people care about it. Maybe it will not be discussed because so many people care about it, but the censors have already banned it from the net.
Back to the letters to the editor and the accusation that we are writing too negatively about China. The most read text by me in 2019 was an essay about the diligence and ambition of young Chinese and why young people in this country can learn from them. But I also think of my colleague Pascal Nufer, who lived and worked for Swiss television in Shanghai for five years. A few weeks ago he published a documentary on his departure, a reconciliation with this country, as he says. China’s pursuit of the perfect surveillance state would have increasingly worn him down. On his last tour through China he therefore went in search of the “other China”. In his report he takes his time again, drifts, follows his housekeeper into the country, travels through the Himalayan mountains and meets up with young rock stars. His journey also tells of a pain that many correspondents are feeling in this country these days. A broken heart, it sometimes feels, is part of the job description today. Perhaps you can learn that from Nufer: that in all this madness you don’t wait for his goodbye to talk about magic.