The Deep Insecurity Behind China's Attacks on the Foreign Press

How It Works
Nov. 11 2013 4:38 PM

The Deep Insecurity Behind China's Attacks on the Foreign Press

111894772
An Amnesty International member covers her mouth during an event in Sydney on July 30, 2008 as part of a campaign to end internet censorship in China.

Photo by GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images

Just as I was leaving China, two stories came out underlying the increasing frustration of foreign news agencies trying to cover the country. The New York Times reported that Bloomberg had made the decision not to run an investigative report on the political influence of a Chinese entrepreneur over fears that the agency might be expelled from the country entirely.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Bloomberg has been at odds with the Chinese government since running an investigation on President Xi Jinping’s personal wealth last year. The Bloomberg website is currently blocked in China, though the company’s television station and electronic terminal service are still available.

Advertisement

China also rejected the visa application of veteran China reporter Paul Mooney who had been waiting eight months to begin a new assignment, reporting on the country for Reuters. The rejection follows similar actions against reporters from the Times and Al Jazeera.

They also come shortly after the release of a widely-publicized report by the Center for International Media Assistance and the National Endowment for Democracy on “the various ways in which Chinese Communist Party (CCP) information controls extend beyond mainland China’s borders.” These included visa denials, the blocking of offending websites, punishing the business interests of new outlets that publish unflattering stories, and physically intimidating foreign reporters as well as their Chinese employees and sources. It’s now evident that the loosening of restrictions in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics has been reversed.

During my trip, my fellow U.S. journalists and I encountered frequent complaints from the Chinese officials and reporters we met with that foreign press coverage of China is too negative. Even if that were true–from corruption, to pollution, to human rights abuses, there’s a lot of bad stuff happening in China that should be reported on–the ease with which the country seems to have its feelings hurt seems absurd for one of the world’s most powerful countries. If you’re going to be a superpower, people are going to write nasty things about you.   

As the CIMA/NED report notes, China’s economic growth and increased global influence have been accompanied by “a deep sense of CCP insecurity.”  This insecurity definitely seemed evident in the over-the-top response to a recent Wall Street Journal editorial calling for the U.S. to recognize Japan’s claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. If the U.S. State Department issued a condemnation every time a foreign newspaper wrote something it didn’t like about U.S. foreign policy, it would have time for little else.

And given the small number of people in China who read the English-language websites of publications like the New York Times and Bloomberg, and the fact that people who are interested in getting the information they publish have many other ways of finding it, blocking them just makes China look very petty without accomplishing very much.  

Inflicting punishment on foreign news outlets also isn’t a great longterm strategy to improve the tone of coverage of your country. Beijing might have gotten the Bloomberg piece spiked–reports on corruption among the country’s senior leaders seem to be a red line— but given that the price for it was a front-page New York Times article in which Bloomberg editor Matthew Winkler is quoted on a conference call comparing the country’s censorship regime to Nazi Germany, it’s hard to say they’re winning the battle of perception. If you don't let foreign outlets cover your country, you don't get to complain that their coverage is too negative. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Photos of the Crowds That Took Over NYC for the People’s Climate March

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 22 2014 9:39 AM Adrian Peterson Has a Terrible Contract, and Cutting Him Would Save the Vikings a Lot of Money
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 22 2014 9:12 AM What Is This Singaporean Road Sign Trying to Tell Us?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Science
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 7:47 AM Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.