Working for Foreign Correspondents in China

Foreword:  This is the story of two people who are currently in the news.  At the outset, let me state that I have great esteem for the mainstream foreign correspondents in China.  I don't have the particulars about these two cases beyond that which is published.  So here I am repeating what has been said by others with respect to these two cases. This may be very discomforting, but this needs to be told.

The first case is Lu Banglie.

It is best to start off with this translated excerpt from the previous post The Taishi Elections - Part 2 (The KR Report).  This is a description by Lu Banglie about what he did to facilitate the work of Knight Ridder reporter Tim Johnson, who was the first foreign correspondent to cover the Taishi events in detail.

At 6:30pm, August 23, 2005, I was the Guangzhou Baiyun Airport to meet the American reporter Tim Johnson and his interpreter.  Mr. Johnson gave me his business card and it says: Tim Johnson, director, Knight Ridder News Services: Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald, Detroit Free Press and 28 other newspapers.  I think that this news group must be equivalent to the Nanfang Daily group in China, but they are obviously a lot bigger.

We proceeded to the city center and grabbed something quick to eat.  Around 830pm, we went to Yuwotou town in the Panyu district.  Our destination was Taishi Village, where the American reporter wanted to interview the villagers who are pushing to recall their official.

On the way, Mr. Johnson asked me about the progress of the recall and the recent August 16 incident.  I told him what I knew.  Mr. Johnson also asked me about my own personal experiences.  I told him that I was once elected as a People's Congress representative in Hubei as an independent candidate and that I had also gone through a recall process to become a village director myself.  Mr. Johnson seemed quite interested, but I recommended to him that he should focus on the Taishi recall process because this has general implications for the Pearl River Delta.

At 930pm, we arrived at Taishi Village.  The American reporter went to work to interview the villagers.  I went to the Village Committee office and found 30 to 40 villagers sitting inside.  They were mostly elderly ladies, plus some middle-aged men.  I asked them what they were doing there, and they said that they were defending the budget office.  Over the front entrance, there were banners that read: "Recall the village official and give us our rights back", "Unite together and insist on the recall until the end."  On the trees in front of the village committee office, there was a long banner: "Unless the villagers consent, no unit or individual shall examine our village's account books, or else you will be responsible for all consequences."

I went back to look for the American reporter.  He was with another family.  For his safety, the interview was done on the second floor of the home.  The reporter met many of the eyewitnesses of the 8/16 bloody incident, and he spoke to people who were physically assaulted at the scene.  Those who were done being interviewed by him then hung around outside to guard against the 'unexpected.'  The interviewing went on until midnight.

At 630am the next morning, the American reporter came to the village committee office to take photographs.  The villagers followed him.  There were about 200 villagers and it was a lively scene.  At 830am, the work was done here and the American reporter left by taxicab.  A motorcycle convoy of villagers escorted us to the People's Hospital in Panyu district.

At the hospital, we saw the injured 16-year-old Feng Daiyin and the 80-something-year-old grandmother Feng Zhen.  She was lying in bed because of a broken bone and other injuries and she looked to be in pain.  The reporter took photographs of her and she held the hands of the female villagers who came with us and told them to defend the budget office and fight for the recall.

A nurse saw us and went to the office to use the telephone to report the situation.  A villager overheard her and came back to tell us.  We all thought that was funny.

After finishing the interviewing at the hospital, we headed back to Guangzhou.  The Taishi villagers' motorcycle team escorted us until they were sure that we were absolutely safe.

So an exciting piece of journalism work was completed.  The kindness of the Taishi villagers and the courage of the American reporter impressed me greatly.

Here are the essential facts.  Lu Banglie is an activist with local contacts in Taishi village.  He facilitated the work of Tim Johnson without pay, in the belief that international publicity will help to bring the cause of the villagers to the attention of the central government and the international community and that may help the villagers.  In so doing, Lu took considerable personal risks.

Fast forward to Benjamin Joffe-Walt (The Guardian)'s account ('They beat him until he was lifeless') of his trip to Taishi village.  Once again, Lu Banglie offered his services to facilitate the reporter's work.

The last time I saw Lu Banglie, he was lying in a ditch on the side of the street - placid, numb and lifeless - the spit, snot and urine of about 20 men mixing with his blood, and running all over his body.  I had only met him that day. He was to show me the way to Taishi, the hotspot of the growing rural uprisings in China. It felt like heading into a war. Taishi is under siege, I was warned. The day I arrived a French radio journalist and a Hong Kong print journalist were rumoured to have been beaten somewhere around Taishi.

The Taishi election had also been scheduled for that very day, and news of a hunger strike by one of the two most famous figures in Taishi had just come out.

Mr Lu was a very soft-spoken man, one of those skinny guys who looked like he might start tearing at any moment. Born as a peasant in Baoyuesi village of Bailizhou town in Zhijiang city in Hubei province, he was a people's representative and had been in the village of Taishi since the start of a democratic movement in the area.  That movement, deeply unpopular with the local authorities, has come to be seen as a weather vane for China's tentative steps toward a more representative society. It has led to beatings and mass arrests among its population as well as for observers who ventured into its environs.

Mr Lu was at the forefront of this maelstrom. And yesterday this was where the problem lay. We had hired a taxi. Mr Lu got in the car to put us on the right road. As we got closer, I asked him to get out. He refused. "If you go, I go," he insisted. I told him he would be endangering himself, the driver and maybe us. He was unfazed, not even listening. I repeated for a third time that I wanted him to get out of the car. It didn't work. The translator was annoyed and asked me to leave it. Mr Lu knew the risks better than us, he reasoned. So I dropped it, and it was this appeasement that determined Mr Lu's fate.

We arrived on the outskirts of Taishi, just as the dirt roads start. There were 30 to 50 men - angry, inebriated, bored men. Most looked like thugs. Some wore military camouflage uniform. Some wore blue uniforms with badges on the shoulders, and one guy had a greyish-mauve uniform with a walkie-talkie. Our taxi driver, who we had hired randomly in a neighbouring village, was called out by the thugs. They screamed at him: "What the fuck are you doing here?"

He knew nothing. He came back in and screamed at us. "Fuck all of you, look now you've gotten me into trouble."  We told him to reverse but by that time it was already too late, the car was encircled. "Don't go out!," I screamed, telling everyone to lock their doors. I called a colleague on my mobile, asked him to stay on the phone with me.

The men outside shouted among themselves and those in uniform suddenly left. Those remaining started pushing on the car, screaming at us to get out. They pointed flashlights at us, and when the light hit Mr Lu's face, it was as if a bomb had gone off. They completely lost it. They pulled him out and bashed him to the ground, kicked him, pulverised him, stomped on his head over and over again. The beating was loud, like the crack of a wooden board, and he was unconscious within 30 seconds.

They continued for 10 minutes. The body of this skinny little man turned to putty between the kicking legs of the rancorous men. This was not about teaching a man a lesson, about scaring me, about preventing access to the village; this was about vengeance - retribution for teaching villagers their legal rights, for agitating, for daring to hide.  They slowed down but never stopped. He lay there - his eye out of its socket, his tongue cut, a stream of blood dropping from his mouth, his body limp, twisted. The ligaments in his neck were broken, so his head lay sideways as if connected to the rest of his body by a rubber band.

We were probably in the car another five to eight minutes. The front windows were open and various men were reaching in to unlock my door. I held my hand tight to the lock. They punched me, twisted my wrist, tried everything possible with a quick grab to get me out. But I wouldn't let go, and I defended myself while watching Mr Lu get beaten through the window.

Eventually, my translator got out. I followed. They opened my pen, searched my pockets, underwear and socks, asked my translator if his watch could record anything. They asked what we were doing in Taishi. They found my Chinese press pass. "You foreigners you are ruining Taishi," they screamed. "You write write write so much about what's happened here that all these businesses have fled the new industrial zone."

My head was spinning. I was in a mixed state of shock at what had happened to Mr Lu and utter fear for my life.  I shamelessly begged. I prayed. I offered them money. I tried to smile at them. Random people came up to Mr Lu and kicked him in the head, clearing their nose of snot on his body, spitting on him, peeing on him, showing off for each other. I had no idea what to do.

I stood there, sweating, my hands ripping my hair out, just staring at the blood all over the man who had risked his life to help me.

An ambulance came. The medic got out, checked his pulse and left. Then it hit me: I'd done absolutely nothing to save Mr Lu. I stood there watching. I'm trained as a medic, and I did nothing to save Mr Lu. Absolutely nothing. They put us in a car, told us we were being taken for interrogation. On the way the men joked, laughed and we shook.

Mr Lu spent his adult life working to empower villagers and to get the attention of Beijing and the world. He was beaten up many times, had scars all over his body. This, he thought, was part of his work.

Once at the township, they put us at a conference table with flowers and spring water. About 15 officials sat round it and politely questioned us, videotaping the interaction as if it were a TV show. "Why did you come to Taishi? Why did you meet Lu Banglie? How did you meet him?" they asked.

"We are not interested in the reception of media interviews of any kind at this juncture in time," one official explained.

His superior arrived: Ms Qi Hong, associate director of the government news office in Guangzhou. "China is open to foreigners," she said. "We welcome any journalists in Guangzhou, but if you don't follow the proper procedures how can we guarantee your safety?"

The initiator of Mr Lu's beating sat at the table, eyes bloodshot, arms crossed at an angle, his elbow jutting into the air as if to show his extreme disinterest in us.

They said we had broken the law by coming here without permission. We apologised. That is all, that is how the night ended. We walked out of the government building, still being filmed, across the lawn, past the Chinese flag at high mast, and into the car.  They waved and smiled, filming us as we drove off. And this is all I can say about the story of Mr Lu because I never saw Taishi from the inside and cannot tell you how it looks, what the people say, how the air feels.

What I can tell you is that what's going on in Taishi is perhaps the most significant grassroots social movement China has seen since the Cultural Revolution, a rural revolt against corruption, against deterioration of healthcare, against the illegal sale of farmland, and broadly against urban capitalism that has reaped no benefits for these farmers.

The Guardian has been unable to confirm what happened to Mr Lu.  Police said they had received reports that he had been taken to hospital, but that he had been released and was "fine". The three nearest hospitals said that no one had been admitted yesterday.

The last words of Mr Lu I wrote down were: "The police cover their arses. They employ all these thugs whose lives mean nothing to them to kill you. That's why once we are in this we can't go out."

There are two sides of the story.  The first side from Blood & Treasure:

Amazing, the small town thug mentality. "Let's avoid beating the foreigner too badly. Let's just beat somebody to death in front of him. That way we can avoid anyone making a fuss."

The fact is that foreign correspondents can expect to be treated differently from their local Chinese facilitators, guides or translators.  The Taishi village case has been around since July and there was no western report except for Tim Johnson's.  Now that a foreign correspondent became part of the story, all the news agencies (BBC, Reuters, UPI, Interfax) have picked up the story.  Beat a foreign correspondent to death and it is a major international crisis; beat the local Chinese fixer to death and it's just a car accident (which is reportedly what local villagers are being instructed by the village officials to say).  This is a sick mentality, but nevertheless it is known to be out there.  For that reason, the foreign correspondents should take care to protect their facilitators.

Now you can understand why Chinese blogger Michael Anti has this to say (无良卫报,难道中国人的命不值钱?"The Guardian has no conscience: are Chinese lives worthless?").



[translation]  As for The Guardian's Benjamin Joffe-Walt, how the fuck did he still have to nerve to write this kind of report?  Perhaps he is young and does not yet know that reporting in certain areas of China is just like in a war zone.  He should not have gone there against the advice of others, and he should not have brought Lu Banglie to the village.  Since he was being taken out by the police, why didn't he insist on rescuing Lu Banglie as well?  It is alright to beg for mercy when it happened.  But the more important thing is that you have a duty and you must assume responsibility for your companion.  Or is that Chinese person just a guide dog?

Thus, we the Chinese people are treated like dogs by the government and we are also treated like dogs by certain arrogant and ignorant foreigners.  I have no idea how this tragedy can be changed.

Meanwhile here is the blog post How To Feel As A Journalist from 阳光麦地:

“Something big happened, go read your email.” Tim told me calmly and a little mournfully when I just arrived the office yesterday morning.

I saw an unanswered phone call on my cell phone and called it back. Mr. Liu, a friend and a human rights fighter, claimed, “Lu Banglie was beaten to death…” I couldn’t help crying instantly. I then asked Liu to take care of himself, and read quickly several pieces of news about the incident. It was reported that Lu was beaten badly, when he was accompanying a foreign reporter to Taishi village. Some said that he might already be dead.

Then I opened my email box and saw Benjamin—the foreign reporter’s story, which started with, “The last time I saw Lu Banglie, he was lying in a ditch on the side of the street - placid, numb and lifeless - the spit, snot and urine of about 20 men mixing with his blood, and running all over his body.” I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t bear such a violent image. Tears kept coming out. Just coming back for the long National holiday, I was not prepared for such a sad thing.

Lu guided Tim and me to Taishi two months ago. We had three meals together, talked a lot throughout the trip, and I even shared a motorbike with him from Guangzhou city to suburb Taishi. He is very thin, soft-spoken, and introverted. Originally a peasant and people’s representative in Hubei province, he went to Taishi to help local villagers to fight against its head. I have been admiring people like him who bravely fight for the disadvantaged since my school years. He deserves to be regarded as a hero. However, I know what he is doing is very “sensitive” and dangerous. I’d better keep at arm’s length from him for my own safety. Also, I should try to keep a cool mind when I delve into something complicated, however sympathetic I am to the people I write about.

Thinking about all these, I still felt deeply depressed. How savage those men were! Why were they that ruthless? Don’t they have a little bit of conscience and mercy? Were they just like wild dogs, which are numb to a person’s life? Also, Benjamin’s story is thrilling, like the depiction of shooting an elephant by George Orwell. I could feel the suffocating sense of fear, and the powerlessness in front of naked and unreasonable power.

Could we do anything in such a situation? Could Benjamin call the British Consulate for help on his cell phone? Or could he walk out the car and threatened those men that they would be severely punished, as foreign reporters are guaranteed with diplomatic protection? Or if I were the translator, could I go out of car to protect Lu Banglie, because I might be given some mercy as a girl? At least, Benjamin could inquire about Lu’s case to give the government pressure when he was later received politely by local officials. I talked these ideas to Tim. He said we could do nothing either, if we were in the car. And he would try to ask a question about Lu to the Chinese government during the Foreign Ministry’s regular press conference.

During lunch with an old friend, I felt reluctant to tell him such an unpleasant thing. But I couldn’t switch myself to something else. He, who is also a reporter, wasn’t surprised, and instead, remained very calm. He also agreed that a reporter could do nothing in that kind of situation. He was just curious why Lu had the unimaginable courage to fight against the powerful.

I talked with lawyer Gao and villager Feng Songxi of Taishi in the afternoon. Gao said he didn’t sleep well the night before and was prepared to go to Guangzhou. Feng said he was sure that Lu had already died, because people saw that Lu had no reaction when poured cold water, and was then taken away by a police car rather than an ambulance. There was no suspension anymore; Lu died, I concluded. What remained to be done was to pressure the government to tell the truth and take responsibilities. I printed out Lu Xun’s famous article “In remembrance of Ms. Liu Hezhen” and read it word by word. Liu Hezhen was a female college student who was killed when she protested against the government in the 1920s. 

Although I had no taste for reading news about Super Girls’ concert, and couldn’t appreciate their energizing photos any more, I decided to put the incident aside and continued my normal activities in the evening. I had a good sleep, and brushed myself into good spirit this morning.

“Lu is still alive. He talked with a French reporter last night.” Tim told me when I arrived at office. Reports said that Lu had returned to his home city Zhijian and talked on phone with a reporter last night. How come! After the surprise, I was relieved---his life is at least secure since he had been able to accept the interview. Then I read the whole content of his conversation with the reporter. He was not only alive, but also seemed in pretty good conditions, since he could even wash his clothes at his sister’s home.

How different the fact is from what I imagined yesterday! Was I misled by Benjamin’s story? How would I feel next time when I am encountered with similar report? Will I become apathetic? Where should a reporter put his/her personal feelings when he/she is told about something tragic?

(SCMP)  Dangers of working with foreigners.  By Peter Goff.  October 19, 2005.

Beyond the daily drill of research, press conferences and interviews, foreign journalists in the mainland are inadvertently mired in a menacing world of intrigue and espionage. But the danger is, for the most part, not directed at them, but rather at the people who co-operate with them as they gather news.

The mainland is not the world's greatest fan of media scrutiny, to say the least. The foreign press corps have always had to deal with the likes of none-too-secret agents on their tail, phone taps, bugged offices and local employees who are encouraged to operate as government spies.

All that is still in place. But the methods of surveillance have become more sophisticated - if not always more subtle. A European journalist on a recent reporting trip to the central provinces was using her mobile phone to try to track down a local activist. While she was talking, a voice broke into the conversation and scolded her for sticking her nose into local affairs.

Another journalist tells of how she interviewed a source in a noisy local restaurant one evening. The next day her mobile rang and she heard the last voice she expected: her own. The call was a recording of her conversation in the restaurant. She has no idea if it was some kind of bounce-back blip in the hi-tech spying game, or whether it was spooks wanting to let her know they were on her case. Either way, it was a jolting reminder of the system's invisible eyes and ears.

The latest technology that is pleasing spies and jealous spouses alike is a chip that can secretly turn a mobile phone into a microphone. Security experts say the phone's software is adjusted so that when the phone is called from a certain number, it will answer automatically without ringing, vibrating or lighting up - essentially turning it into a bugging device.

All this, and the many other hi-tech eavesdropping and tracking devices now available, can spell danger for the sources who talk to journalists and the Chinese people who work with them. Foreign reporters here are sometimes hassled, impeded from doing their work, forced to sign self-criticisms and, in some cases, threatened or even roughed up.

But it is very rare that their lives are endangered or their freedom jeopardised. For Chinese it is a very different matter. On any kind of sensitive issue sources, news assistants, photographers, support staff and the like run a far greater risk of being beaten, imprisoned or worse, for helping foreign reporters. Their attackers are often thugs who have been hired to do the dirty work.

This reality places a "huge burden" on journalists based on the mainland, according to Melinda Liu, Newsweek magazine's Beijing bureau chief and president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China. "It is a very big issue for us," she said, as before doing any story they must first evaluate who is going to be involved and assess what danger they might be exposed to.

"We have to figure out if it's worth taking the risk," she said. "There are some stories we just won't do because we feel it's too dangerous. But if we were to be 100 per cent careful in every case, we would simply not be able to do our jobs."

In many cases, the Chinese involved are prompted to take risks by a desire to get the information out, knowing it would never be published in China. The call could only be made on a "gut feeling, on a case-by-case basis", Ms Liu said, and no one could predict how situations would develop. "Sometimes you are going to make the wrong call. It is a huge dilemma."

And if it all means some controversial stories go unreported, it is a dilemma that seems to suit the more opaque elements of the state perfectly well.

The second case is Zhao Yan, the New York Times researcher.

Philip P. Pan wrote in the Washington Post (Internal memo key to China's case against NYT researcher) (see also Jim Yardley, For a jailed newsman in China, few rights):

The Chinese government's case against a New York Times researcher who has been held on suspicion of revealing state secrets for more than a year relies almost entirely on a copy of an internal Times memo obtained by the State Security Ministry, according to a confidential ministry document urging prosecutors to indict the researcher.

State security agents obtained a copy of the memo as part of an investigation to uncover the source of a Times article predicting the retirement of China's former president, people familiar with the probe said. But it is unclear how the agents gained access to the memo, which was written by the researcher, Zhao Yan, and describes a possible leadership dispute over military promotions.  The document requesting Zhao's indictment includes a copy of the memo in an inventory of evidence collected in the case.

Susan Chira, the Times' foreign editor, said the newspaper did not give the government a copy of the memo, which was stored in a file cabinet in the Times Beijing bureau. Asked to comment on the possibility that state security agents searched the office and photocopied it, she replied: "If that were true, we'd be upset. . . . We really don't know what happened. Obviously, they got hold of it."

A surreptitious search of the Times bureau by state security agents, or by employees of the Times obeying their instructions, could violate Chinese law.

Again, the fact is that foreign correspondents can expect to be treated differently from their local Chinese guides, translators or researchers.  The Times article was written by Joseph Kahn, who has continued to work for the New York Times in China.  Meanwhile, Zhao Yan was arrested in September 17, 2004 and still has not been charged.  Arresting a foreign correspondent would have been a major international crisis; arresting the Chinese researcher because an internal security matter.  For that reason, the foreign correspondents should take care to protect their facilitators.  They cannot rely on the fact that it is illegal to conduct surreptitious searches; there are many other illegal things that are routine everywhere.

Now you can understand why the following comment sent to me from a former foreign correspondent in China:

They kept a handwritten note of his on the communist party leadership conflict in their office???!!!  How stupid is that!!!  So unnecessary. If they didn't know that those offices are regularly searched, most likely by their own employees (drivers, secretaries) working for state security, they don't know the first thing about reporting in China. Rule number one: don't keep copies of sensitive handwritten notes that can easily be connected back to their source on file in your office.  What happened to the cardinal principle: "protect your sources"?  The New York Times Beijing bureau did not do right by this guy.

Here the ESWN blogger steps in to defend the New York Times.  The street talk was that Hu Jintao got very angry when Kahn's article appeared and personally ordered the leaker to be found and punished.  The security apparatus could not find the leaker with all their means and therefore Joseph Kahn protected that source well.  Zhao Yan was unfortunate to have been found with something else that does not pertain to the article.  Could that have been avoided?  Who is to say just what is state secret, as shown in The Case of Shi Tao and The Case of Wang Feiling?