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Reporter's Notebook: Is China Really Opening to the World?

A general view of the second plenary session of the 14th National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 8, 2024.
A general view of the second plenary session of the 14th National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 8, 2024.

Over the last few weeks, China has gone to great lengths to give the impression that it is opening up to the world – whether for foreign businesses, tourists or journalists.

I can’t speak with certainty on these claims. I’m not a China specialist, but a regional reporter who covers what often feels like an impossibly large part of the world, including China.

But my recent experience on a short reporting trip to Beijing reveals the difficulties faced by foreign journalists working in the country. It's an experience that goes against the official narrative of an “opening up” in China.

Recently, the Chinese government invited me to cover the country's biggest annual political event, including a meeting of its National People’s Congress, which wrapped up this week in Beijing.

I hadn’t expected to get a visa. Journalists working for U.S. and many other Western news outlets have been mostly shut out of China since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when U.S.-China tensions spiked, and the country entered a severe three-year period of lockdowns and strict COVID controls.

No VOA journalist had been given a visa for China since 2020, other than a State Department correspondent who was part of a traveling press pool during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

By my count, China handed out at least seven short-term journalist visas for U.S. and European media to cover the week-long political gathering, known as the “Two Sessions,” during which China’s political elite delivered a consistently upbeat message about China’s struggling economy.

Mixed messages

It doesn’t take an expert to see that China faces a long list of problems. Even after lifting its COVID-19 lockdown at the beginning of last year, China’s economy has seen some of its slowest growth in decades. Foreign investment has plunged, amid geopolitical tensions and a series of high-profile detentions of Chinese and foreign businesspeople. And fewer tourists are coming to China compared to before the pandemic.

At the Two Sessions, China downplayed those challenges, setting an ambitious economic growth target of about 5% for the year. But while authorities promised to reduce barriers to tourism and foreign trade, they also tightened the Communist Party’s grip over the government and expanded national security laws that many foreign critics already saw as vague.

FILE - Chinese job seekers hold brochures as they seek for job vacancies at a job fair in Beijing on Feb. 23, 2024.
FILE - Chinese job seekers hold brochures as they seek for job vacancies at a job fair in Beijing on Feb. 23, 2024.

As a journalist, I also sensed inconsistent messaging. While China restored pre-COVID levels of media access at the Two Sessions, it canceled the usual press conference given by the premier at the end of the gathering. Many reporters felt conflicted about the cancellation; while it was clear the questions at this press conference were usually pre-selected, it was still a rare chance for journalists to engage with a senior Chinese leader.

Journalistic restrictions

Most of my challenges as a reporter began when I left Tiananmen Square, where the political meetings were held, and visited other parts of Beijing. For much of this month, the entire capital area has seen an increased security presence, as is typical during sensitive political moments.

But I figured the omnipresent police patrols would not prevent me from conducting basic journalistic tasks, such as getting video footage of major tourist areas and conducting brief, impromptu interviews with local residents.

My interview questions were innocuous. What do Chinese people think about the upcoming U.S. presidential election? Do they prefer Donald Trump or Joe Biden? Do they have any hope that U.S.-China ties will improve?

The questions generated a range of thoughtful responses, which you can see in the video below.

Trump or Biden – Whom Does China Prefer?
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I didn’t experience any trouble until I returned to my hotel that evening, when I received a phone call saying I should appear immediately at a local office of the Ministry of Public Security, China’s main state policing agency that also monitors domestic political threats.

Upon arrival, I was escorted down a nondescript hall to a small conference room, where I was met by several officers, who proceeded to conduct an interrogation.

Why, the officers demanded to know, was I asking people about Trump and Biden, and not writing about the Two Sessions for which I had media credentials? The focus of my reporting trip, I responded, was on China’s policies, including its foreign relations.

Why, they wanted to know, had I not gotten permission before filming? I told them that not only was I in a public area, but I did also not shoot any interviews without first getting permission from the interviewees.

Their last question took the form of a rebuke: Why was VOA not more fair in telling China’s side of the story? Apparently, the officers had not appreciated the irony that I had been interviewing residents for a piece with the main goal of providing Chinese perspectives.

Pattern of abuse

In the end, I received only a mild scolding before I was allowed to leave. Other China-based reporters often experience far worse abuse, even if only counting very recent incidents.

The week before I arrived in China, a Dutch journalist covering a bank protest in the central city of Chengdu was shoved to the ground and had his equipment confiscated by police, who detained him and his cameraman for several hours while preventing them from making phone calls.

This week, a reporter for The Associated Press said he and a colleague were followed by plainclothes police, who at one point even trailed him into a bathroom. The AP reporters were in Chengdu speaking with elderly retirees who had invested in a trust fund that had gone bankrupt.

“Over a dozen plainclothes followed us, using tactics I've only seen in Xinjiang. They followed me into the bathroom and to the airport. They took photos of us,” the reporter, Dake Kang, said on social media website X. “This is Chengdu, one of the most liberal cities in China. Startling to see such tactics deployed here.”

Foreign journalists have often experienced harassment when visiting far-flung areas, such as Tibet or Xinjiang, where China is accused of severe human rights abuses, or while reporting on other politically sensitive topics, such as protests or natural disasters.

But if my experience, and that of many others, is any indication, it is becoming much more difficult for foreign journalists to do even the most non-controversial stories in the biggest of China’s cities.

Even China’s state-controlled journalists have faced increasing restrictions. Just this week, authorities in the city of Sanhe, 50 kilometers outside Beijing, harassed reporters from state outlet CCTV during a live broadcast near the scene of a deadly gas explosion.

Chinese security personnel gather to remove Chinese journalists from the scene of an explosion in Sanhe city in northern China's Hebei province, March 13, 2024.
Chinese security personnel gather to remove Chinese journalists from the scene of an explosion in Sanhe city in northern China's Hebei province, March 13, 2024.

The incident prompted a public backlash, even drawing a statement of concern from a Communist Party-affiliated association of journalists.

“The incident was a wake-up call to a problem suffered for decades by more professional news outlets in China that have attempted to do real reporting in the face of formal press restrictions from the Chinese Communist Party leadership above, and frequent intimidation down below,” wrote David Bandurski, in a commentary published in the China Media Project.

“Such acts of obstruction are not an exception but the very nature of media policy in China,” he added.

Open to the world?

So, how does all this relate to China’s official narrative that it is open to the world?

I obviously can’t say how all foreign investors feel about returning to China. But I’ve spoken with colleagues in business and academia who no longer feel comfortable traveling to the country, citing fears of arbitrary detention.

I can’t speak for foreign tourists, either. But I can tell you how difficult it was as a newcomer to accomplish even the simplest tasks – such as booking a taxi, paying for a meal with a foreign bank account and checking Facebook, Instagram or virtually any other Western social media app – given China’s insistence on placing a digital firewall between its people and the rest of the world.

What I can say with certainty is that I felt welcomed by Beijing residents, who seemed eager to interact with VOA, despite a state-backed campaign portraying foreign journalists as potential spies and dangerous troublemakers.

But at one point during last week’s meetings, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told gathered media that his government is “opening its door wider” to the world. At another point he insisted “more foreign friends are welcome to join us” in telling China’s story.

From my point of view, it sure didn’t feel that way.