Pro-China supporters hold the pictures of prominent Hong Kong democracy advocate and newspaper founder Jimmy Lai with Chinese…
Pro-China supporters hold the pictures of prominent Hong Kong democracy advocate and newspaper founder Jimmy Lai with the Chinese words 'Traitor of China' in Hong Kong on Feb. 18, 2021.

TAIPEI - China is becoming an increasingly hostile environment for foreign media who are experiencing “tumultuous times” in the country, according to the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.

Chinese authorities escalated efforts to thwart independent reporting in the country last year, with at least 18 foreign journalists expelled in the first half of 2020. Not since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 has China experienced such a large expulsion of foreign media, an annual report by the journalist association says.

The coronavirus pandemic, international disputes, and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests and national security law were all cited by FCCC members as having affected their ability to report.

The FCCC gathers its data from surveys of its 220 members. In the latest surveys, 150 members responded.

The pandemic restricted international travel worldwide, but in China, foreign journalists remain the only category of foreign professionals to be barred from traveling in and out of China, the survey said.

Correspondents still working in China cited issues of visa renewals, harassment, and being followed, manhandled or detained while on assignment. Chinese nationals working with foreign media also faced an increase in interrogations from authorities, and in worst cases, detention.

In a daily press briefing, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the FCCC report “only conveys the paranoid ideas of a handful of Western journalists.”

“During the period when lockdown measures were lifted in Wuhan alone, we've organized more than 20 group interviews for over 300 foreign journalists,” Wenbin said.

Wuhan is the Chinese city where the COVID-19 virus is thought to have emerged.

“We always welcome media and journalists from other countries to do their work in China in accordance with laws and regulation. What we oppose is ideological bias against China, fake news under the cover of freedom of press,” Wenbin said.

Expulsion from China

Issues with reporting in and on Hong Kong were also cited in the report.

Due to the pandemic, foreign correspondents have been unable to enter Hong Kong. But some who covered the anti-government protests in 2019 disclosed that Chinese officials questioned them about their coverage or described it as “problematic.”

Those expelled from China – including correspondents from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post – discovered the ban extended to Hong Kong.

After 2019’s anti-government protests, Beijing implemented a National Security Law for Hong Kong, prohibiting secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Critics warned the law’s reach could be widely interpreted.

And the new security legislation has had an impact on those within the city when reporting on political matters.

Public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong has come under pressure from the Hong Kong government, which has criticized shows for apparent political bias and complained about reporters raising questions over its editorial independence.

A local report this week said that the new director of broadcasting, Patrick Li, has said he must review all programs in person, before they go on air.

Foreign journalists who spoke to the FCCC survey said since the security law came into effect, sources have become more cautious about speaking on political matters. And stringers working with foreign media said they are concerned that authorities might take action against them for their work.

But one foreign correspondent in Hong Kong, who chose to stay anonymous out of caution over the security law, told VOA he does not believe foreign media in Hong Kong are not being directly targeted, yet.

“I don’t think the national security law changed the way we report, but it makes us much more considerate of how we approach stories. It feels the law is being used to target individuals and the type of people that the authorities wanted to target anyway, and it doesn’t feel to me, that foreign media is on that list at the moment.”

“But it feels like we are getting closer and closer,” he said.

'A ringside view'

David Schlesinger, the former global editor-in-chief of Reuters who reported out of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in the 1990s, believes the threat of the national security law equals the risk that foreign media face in China.

“Just as foreign journalists in Beijing and Shanghai have always had to worry about surveillance, harassment, their ability to get and keep visas, and their ability to get access, so too will foreign journalists in Hong Kong,” Schlesinger, now a media and political risk adviser, told VOA.

“China actually needs is to improve its relationship with journalists, allowing more real reporting and understanding, rather than to intensify an ultimately harmful mutual antagonism,” he added.

Johan Nylander, China correspondent at Dagens Industri, a Swedish financial paper, said his reporting hasn’t changed, but he is finding more obstacles.

“Many international business leaders in China don’t want to be interviewed at all, not even about ‘positive news.’ Now, we see the same trend here in Hong Kong,” he said.

Nylander, who is also the author of The Epic Split/Why “Made in China” Is Going Out Of Style, an analysis of the U.S.-China trade war, said despite the problems, he feels safe in the city.

“Hong Kong is probably the most exciting place on the planet to be a reporter right now. It’s like having a ringside view of the clash between China and the West,” Nylander added.

But Sari Arho Havren, a China analyst now based in Brussels, believes a time limit has been placed on Hong Kong’s current press system.

“Although the journalists are still much freer in Hong Kong than, say, in Guangdong, my forecast is that in the mid- and longer term, I am afraid we will be witnessing a slow integration with the mainland practices and attempts to further limit the free reporting,” Havren told VOA.

China’s annual “two sessions” parliament meeting is currently underway in Beijing, and further revamps in Hong Kong are being looked at according to local media, including electoral reforms that would increase Beijing’s political control over the city.