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Foreign Media Face 'Unprecedented' Hurdles in China

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FILE - A policeman blocks the camera to stop journalists from recording footage outside the Shanghai Pudong New District People's Court, in Shanghai, Dec. 28, 2020.

For NPR's Emily Feng, it was snail noodles, a deliciously stinky snack.

Her article, written for a large U.S. media organization, triggered a seemingly orchestrated online attack — complete with Feng's photograph — by China's official state media outlets and private Chinese citizens accusing her of being anti-China. Feng tweeted about the "hurdles" she found "perplexing but also sadly routine" in reporting on snail noodles.

For foreign journalists, such attacks, some physical, are increasingly common — and well planned by the Chinese government, according to Chang Ping, a former journalist who now lives in Germany as a China affairs commentator. The most recent occurred during the opening hours of the Olympics, when a Chinese security officer hustled a Dutch journalist off camera on live TV.

"The articles that attack foreign media are not a decision made by editors or journalists or whoever wrote them. Everything goes with the state's grand diplomatic plans," Chang Ping told VOA Mandarin. "The so-called crass 'wolf diplomacy' didn't happen because the diplomats or the government became stupid. It became like this because they believe it will bring them good results. They believe it works." "Wolf warrior diplomacy" is a newly assertive Chinese attitude in its dealings with the world.

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Li Busheng, a pseudonym used out of fear by an experienced Chinese journalist working for a Western media outlet in China, told VOA Mandarin that "many times the social media or websites claim they use algorithms to push only the stuff (an audience member) likes to read, but the reality is, you'll always see these anti-West or China-West confrontation articles. It's like they force-feed it to you."

Reporting challenges

A report by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China, or FCCC, on media freedom in 2021 found that foreign journalists are facing "unprecedented hurdles" because of Beijing's efforts to "block and discredit independent reporting."

"As the number of journalists forced out by the Chinese state grows due to excessive intimidation or outright expulsions, covering China is increasingly becoming an exercise in remote reporting."

The 2021 FCCC report did not mention any controversial reports on snail noodles; back in 2022 China, however, Feng tweeted about surveillance and middle-of-the-night COVID-19 checks by unmasked Chinese officers. Feng declined to speak with Mandarin VOA.

China's Foreign Ministry has described the FCCC as "an illegal organization, never acknowledged by China."

Foreign journalists are routinely surveilled online and offline, in the field as well as in the cities where they are based, according to the FCCC report, published January 31. Virtually all the foreign journalists responding to an annual survey by the report's authors said that reporting conditions did not meet what they considered to be international standards.

Chinese authorities appeared to be encouraging a spate of lawsuits or the threat of legal action against foreign journalists, the report found. Such litigation is typically filed by sources long after they explicitly agreed to be interviewed.

The FCCC notes that based on precedent, foreigners involved in civil or criminal lawsuits and court proceedings in China can be banned from leaving the country.

Telephone and email requests for comment on the FCCC report, which had been sent last week to the Chinese embassy in Washington, went unanswered.

The report quotes David Rennie, Beijing bureau chief of The Economist, as saying, "In the past, the main tools used to control media involved restrictions on access, blacklisting from events, or problems with press cards and visas. The growing use of the law is new and worrying."

Visa limbo

Foreign correspondents unable to remain in China have relocated to report from Taipei, Singapore, Sydney and London, the report says. Hong Kong, once the preferred post outside China, is no longer an appealing option because of Beijing's crackdown on the press under a national security law imposed in 2020. The broadly written law has been used to arrest and jail local journalists.

The Chinese authorities have hobbled the remaining journalists working for U.S. news organizations by refusing to renew the press cards essential for reporting. At least 22 journalists from the United States, Britain, Canada, Italy, Japan and New Zealand are in constant limbo after authorities trimmed the period covered by residence permits from one year to two or three months.

Authorities use China's strict pandemic measures to delay approvals for journalist visas, which has left many news organizations understaffed, the report says. The pandemic controls also help authorities shut down reporting trips and decline interview requests.

"China thinks it's in the world center now, and you see more reports on how Xi Jinping is pointing a direction for the world," said Chang Ping. "The purpose of attacking media and journalists is clear: to frighten them. And it works."

Noodlegate

So how did Feng's January 16 paean to the delights of stinky snail noodles become a target? Posted on NPR's health and development blog, Goats and Soda, her piece bore the headline, "Snail noodles go viral in China during the pandemic. But the dish is a bit ... funky".

On an always hungry internet that had had quite enough of pandemic favorites such as sourdough starters, snail noodles barreled toward viral fame.

FILE - A roadside food vendor sells snail noodles in Hanoi, Oct. 10, 2003.
FILE - A roadside food vendor sells snail noodles in Hanoi, Oct. 10, 2003.

It began: "It's fermented. It's stinky. It's delicious. And during the pandemic, it's become a national sensation. The dish is snail noodles, or luosifen."

The snack, local to China's southern province of Guangxi, so captured Feng that she traveled to the food fad's center near the Vietnamese border.

Her article chronicled the economic ingenuity of a struggling manufacturing center that pivoted to stinky snack stardom even before the pandemic.

Feng tweeted that there were "numerous state pieces" responding to her article, including one from a local newspaper in Guangdong province headlined "Anti-China Chinese reporter infiltrates into Guangxi and writes about luosifen cynically." The article included a photo of Feng.

A pro-China overseas online publication called Student Daily in North America also accused Feng of "spreading rumors that luosifen will cause another pandemic and smearing traditional food as a way of passing virus." The Chinese article ends saying, "From bats to luosifen, Western media never stops smearing the origin of COVID-19 virus."

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