The day after floodwaters in southern China rose to lap the feet of the Leshan Giant Buddha, I was passing near the city in my friend’s car. As we cruised along the empty, dry highway, his girlfriend Leilei rang: “Are you past Leshan yet?” she shouted down the phone. “If you’re not past, go home immediately. There’s been a gas leak. Everyone is trying to get out. The entrance to the highway has been blocked off.”
My friend, in the driving seat, was stumped: the roads were clear, and we were a little past the danger zone already. We tried our best to reassure his girlfriend over the phone. There was no point in doing anything but going forward. She hung up, and I dozed off as we left the highway and entered the winding mountain roads.
When we arrived at our destination, a farmhouse in the mountains of Sichuan, I asked our hosts if they had heard about the leak. “It’s fake news,” they replied, “the Leshan government has already said there was no problem.” We went back to shelling walnuts and eating them in their moist cream-coloured skins. Breathing the damp mountain air, nobody had further reason to worry. If I had been on a reporting assignment, I would have started scouring social media, calling local residents, trying to unknot the contradictions. But I was on holiday, and I was experiencing the news as most people do: as it happens to you.
In the evening, Leilei arrived at the farmhouse and set out the facts as she saw them: there had in fact been a gas leak. The city officials had initially denied there was a problem, saying there had been no explosion, and asking people not to spread rumours.
This was little comfort for the locals. “You can say what you want, but you can’t deny the people their senses when they say they can smell something terrible in the air,” said Leilei. “It’s just like Wuhan.” I later learnt the official narrative from a local state media journalist: there had been a leak, but it was all under control now.
Over dinner, I asked Leilei why the local government officials felt the need to give false reassurances. She launched into her account of imperial Chinese history. “It’s always been the case in China: no official wants their boss to hear bad news. So they’ll cover it up all the way along the chain.”
“There are only two ways a cover-up ends,” Leilei continued. “The emperor hears, or a journalist finds out.”
Perhaps China’s would-be emperor Xi Jinping had this in mind when embarking on the tightening of speech in the media. Indeed, journalists were the first to voice their dissent over his decision to remove his term limits in February 2018, albeit in the subtle way that protest occurs under authoritarianism. In a since-deleted tweet, the state news agency Xinhua first told the world of the end of Xi’s term limits, singling it out among other policy changes and releasing it ahead of any Chinese-language state media coverage. It was a complete disruption of process in a tightly scripted propaganda machine, and Xinhua was wracked internally over the affair.
Under Xi, China’s best independent investigative newspapers have been in effect closed down. One miraculous exception is Caixin, which broke stories in Wuhan throughout the start of the epidemic. This year, the government has unleashed the biggest attack on foreign media for decades, expelling around 16 US journalists so far and threatening to do so to more. Most of the expulsions came after the US started restricting Chinese journalists’ visas. My Chinese journalist friends, working in the US for a range of foreign and Chinese media, are still waiting for their visa renewals.
The more polarised the outside view of a country is, the more important it is to humanise its inhabitants
The security services are also increasing their incursions into the media. Last month, Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist for China’s state television agency CGTN, was detained in China’s system of hidden jails on undisclosed national security charges. And only last week, two Australian journalists fled China after national security agents turned up on their doorsteps at midnight.
Under these circumstances, friends abroad often ask me what it is like to report in China in 2020. While we don’t self-censor, our interviewees who live here have to. Many topics that years ago were mundane — from the economy to semiconductors — have become highly sensitive, meaning even retired academics refuse interviews for fear of losing their pensions. Not only are interviews cancelled through fear, but also through suspicion of foreign media. Hostility now emanates from all ideological sides. Last week, one commentator called my front-page story Chinese Communist party propaganda while another source declined an interview, saying he did not want to be used “for US propaganda”.
Despite all this, when travelling around China’s smaller cities and countryside, I feel it is a place where my profession is celebrated. Journalists, particularly foreign journalists, are seen as a kind of multi-tool for resolving problems with the local government. Since the legal system doesn’t give Chinese people much protection from abuses of government power, there was a saying used in the 1990s: “a journalist is more useful than a lawyer”.
Like Leilei, many people in China believe that miscarriages of justice are local in nature, and can be resolved by appealing to more benevolent rulers in Beijing. This can be done indirectly through the media, or through the formal process of “petitioning”, with a government office that receives letters and complaints. The further I travel from the capital, the more likely it is that a petition will be pressed into my hands, with the writer asking me to send it on my return to Beijing.
Social inequality also creates greater reliance on journalists. There are almost 300m migrant workers in China, nearly all of whom cannot access the state’s meagre social security provisions. For many of them, meeting a journalist is a rare interaction with a middle-class professional who is interested in their lives. We receive questions we can only try to answer: how do I get my loan back; how do I report my sexual assault; what’s wrong with my work contract. I often prove much less useful than a lawyer, but at least I can recommend some.
Media coverage, many locals think, is the fastest way of resolving their problems: someone higher up is bound to hear. Sometimes it is not the coverage itself, but the mere appearance of a foreign journalist on the scene, that gets officials to start listening intently to their problems.
At the local level, concerns of international politics fade away. On a reporting trip to Liangshan, one of the poorest parts of China, I sat down on the side of a road with villagers and a local official, whom the villagers accused of not delivering on the promise of housing. The official warned them we were foreigners, and that there were some things they should not say to us. They ignored the warning; when the person sitting in front of you owes you a house in your own village, what do you care for the reputations of presidents in faraway capitals?
The idea the official was nodding to, that one shouldn’t air dirty laundry in front of strangers, is a common reaction to foreign media in China. But China’s problems aren’t allowed to be aired publicly at home, either. Travelling around China, I find the constituency that is most vocally critical of the Communist party at a local level are the small merchants, who are easily taken advantage of by local officials. But higher up the chain, it’s the retired, well-educated officials who are the most disappointed in Xi’s China, because of the lack of space for criticism or alternative voices.
Across all the groups of people I speak to, there’s a common wish to be heard: either to resolve a problem, or for the act of being remembered
Across all the groups of people I speak to, there’s a common wish to be heard: either to resolve a problem, or for the act of being remembered. I often wish I could open a small news outlet on the side, the “Provincial Financial Times”, to capture all of these stories, instead of having to explain to fishermen in a southern Chinese village why their licensing dispute isn’t going to be a priority area for our readers.
But I do feel increasingly grateful to still have a journalist visa: new ones will not be processed at all until China’s borders open, which means a freeze on new foreign correspondents arriving in China. I think this gives us a great responsibility, too, to educate our readers about the nuances of China. The more polarised the outside view of a country is, the more important it is to humanise its inhabitants. And the fewer newspapers there are that can hold the emperor to account, the more important it is for us to do so.