Space to speak in China can expand or shrink

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This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at

RNW works together with correspondents around the world. Some of these journalists work in countries where press freedom is restricted. In our summer series “The limits of free speech” a number of correspondents describe their experiences. Marije Vlaskamp reports from China – a country with a difficult reputation for journalists. But, she says, one where people are increasingly willing to speak freely.

My mobile phone rings when I am shopping for souvenirs abroad, on holiday far away from China. Beijing number, a male voice. “This is the municipal police. Please refrain from reporting in Wangfujin.”
I have been out of the country for a month, the last thing on my mind is reporting on one of Beijing’s busiest shopping streets. But I only ask my standard question: have the official reporting regulations for foreign journalists been changed? No. Good. Then the state is free to do its job and I am free to do mine.

Nip dissent in the bud
Two days later, I am back home in Beijing. Plainclothes state security officials grab me and force me into a shopping mall. There’s been an online appeal from an unknown source to start a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ by walking along shopping street Wangfujin. I am locked up for hours in a mall with a crowd of Sunday shoppers. Outside, policemen sweep Wangfujin clean.

This is how the Chinese government handles the slightest whiff of dissent: nip it in the bud and blame the messenger, in this case, foreign correspondents. After the Wangfujin sweep, the Foreign Ministry issues a statement: foreign journalists must not ‘use the law as a shield’, while engaging in ‘counterrevolutionary activities’. After that unusually stern warning, the journalistic climate has remained chilly, for months.

Reading the runes
The Jasmine Revolution story – if there ever was one – dies. Not because of self-censorship: some colleagues keep engaging the police at rumoured Jasmine locations. But the story itself fails to develop. Nobody knows who is behind those random Internet messages calling for an overthrow of the one party system. The messages themselves only succeed in stirring up state security and correspondents.

The most interesting remaining fact is the Chinese government’s reaction: in my twelve years, this is the harshest warning I have ever heard. One of a journalist’s main tools here is listening to signals. As the ancient fortune oracle I-Qing says: ‘fire under the lake: the image of revolution/ a wise man reads the signs of the changing seasons/ and orders his calendar accordingly.’ A correspondent does the same because signs and signals, however vague or coded, are the only way to estimate the amount of space the government allows, and where it sets its limits.

Changing space
Political space – which includes space for foreign correspondents - constantly changes, influenced by sensitive political dates, secretive workings in the inner sanctum of the Communist Party and movements in society. At times, it is so large and tolerant, that it is almost free. Access is easy and people (including the government) are overwhelmingly cooperative. During the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, I could go everywhere, ask any question and when stuck on a collapsing mountain, the People’s Liberation Army helped out with a ride to safety. Obviously, this had a political motive: heartbreaking stories of China coping with the disaster, just before the Beiijng Olympics, highlighted the human side of China, after its image was tarnished by the blunt suppression of unrest in Tibet.

But more often space contracts. Even innocent stories become ‘sensitive’ overnight. Subtle signs of the change - a source cancelling an appointment with a valid reason - are easily overlooked.

When sensitive becomes dangerous
Let’s be clear: the government knows I am on a story and I know that it knows. China has the most rigorous Internet censorship in the world, and the government is perfectly capable of monitoring email, mobile phones and the movements of 1.3 billion people, including this correspondent.

Protect myself and my sources by being transparent and by working according to international ethics and practices of our trade. But that protection is flimsy when space contracts further and the line between ‘sensitive’ and ‘dangerous and impossible’ becomes extremely thin. Sometimes a story only gets out thanks to the courage of Chinese people. And sometimes it does not get out at all.

The continuous balancing of risk, possibility and relevancy of stories is the main challenge – changing into stress when government interference has serious consequences for Chinese people who work with me, help me to get somewhere, or share their story.

Olympic gains
Even then, China has a much better reporting environment compared to pre-Olympic days. At that time, every trip outside Beijing without government permission was ‘illegal reporting’. The law required journalists to submit a reporting plan with the local government. I went on ‘holiday’ (reporting without permission) a lot, and getting caught, being detained and sent back to Beijing was part of the job.
In December 2006 the government issued new reporting regulations, which became permanent after the Olympic Games. Now, accredited correspondents only need permission from people they interview. Of course the regulations are ‘adapted’ or ‘forgotten’ at a local level: intimidation or violence against reporters and their sources is still common. But the overall effect of the new regulations is encouraging.

After six years, they have trickled down to the Chinese man and woman on the street. Poor, barely-educated Chinese impress me with their knowledge: they know I have a legal right to speak with them, and they have the right to talk to me. And however hard reporting from inside China may sometimes be, that awareness of freedom of speech is all a correspondent really needs.