The World

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

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.

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.

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.