artist Liu Bolin preparing a piece
In 2009, Reporters Without Borders ranked China 167th out of 173 countries in its assessment of press freedoms, just ahead of Iran but behind Vietnam.

Article 35 of the Chinese constitution guarantees freedoms of speech and press but these are undermined by a plethora of laws on libel and revealing state secrets.

There are no freedom of information laws or freedom of the press in China. If a newspaper prints something the party doesn't like, the government can fire the editors and journalists and shut the newspaper down. The lack of freedom extends beyond the media. Respected professors have been banned from teaching and famous literary critics have been banned from publishing for expressing unpopular views.

The Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 tested press freedoms. test. After martial law was declared there was some coverage of the protests but when Du Xoan, a popular television anchor, cried during a broadcast the coverage stopped and she was never seen on the air again.

Even foreign journalists are not immune from crackdowns. Todd Carrel, a former bureau chief in Beijing for ABC news, wrote in National Geographic, "In June 1992...I reported for ABC on a man who, all alone, showed up unfurl a protest banner...My price for documenting his actions was severe and unexpected. I was kicked and punched by a group of plainclothes policemen, one of whom flailed my head with a bag of rocks. The beating left me hobbled with lasting injuries. I still have difficulty walking, sitting and standing."

See Internet, Expression, see Punk Rock, Music

Control of the Foreign Media in China

The Chinese government looks upon the foreign press corps in China with both fear and condescension and is wary of both foreign content and foreign competition. Christina Larson wrote in The Atlantic: "There is a saying that Chinese people are afraid of officials, and officials are afraid of foreign reporters," my friend Yang, a wily reporter for one of Beijing's city newspapers, told me as we were driving to dinner one evening. "You have the power in China," he said, teasing me. [Source: Christina Larson, The Atlantic March 22, 2011]

The government In 1995, the Chinese government passed laws that foreign media can be punished for disseminating information that "slanders or jeopardizes the nationals interests of China." In September 2006, the Chinese government announced rules in which foreign news organizations were required to seek approval to distribute news, pictures and graphics within China and warned against the dissemination of news that threatened national security, endangers unification and promotes cults. The move was largely seen as an effort to create a government-controlled media monopoly. There have been reports of profiling of foreign reporters and keeping files and databases on them, a move which contradicts of promises of more openness before the games.

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist
and his take on expression China

Foreign journalists used to need permission to report outside their base, usually Beijing or Shanghai. Control of the foreign media was eased in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, culminating with a decree signed by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao negating the need for government permission to conduct interviews. However, there were complains that promises of “complete freedom to report” before and during the Olympics were not fulfilled. In the run up to the Olympics foreign reporters complained that were denied access to “forbidden zones” particularly in Tibet and areas with large Tibetan populations. The Foreign Correspondents Club in Beijing reported 30 incidents of reporting interference during the Olympics and 300 reports of interference after the relaxed rules went into effect in early 2007.

In October 2008, the Chinese government announced that the easing of restrictions made on foreign journalists before the Olympics would be made permanent. Under the new regulations journalist would not be required to get government permission to travel within China or interview Chinese citizens. The move was seen as a sign that Beijing was opening up. However permission was still needed to travel and report in restricted areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang.

The situation took some steps backward during the weak “Jasmine Revolution” protests in March 2011 when foreign journalists were watched, followed and in some cases roughed up and detained. There were reports of police knocking on doors at 5:30am and interrogating children who answered the phone.

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist

Plight of Chinese Journalists

On her friend say his life as journalist, Christina Larson wrote in The Atlantic: “His appraisal of his career so far as a journalist in China---brimming at once with earnestness and cynicism (a contradiction not uncommon, somehow, in many fields in China)---has stayed with me. Over cheap bijou, he shared his exploits covering illegal border crossings in Burma and sneaking into North Korea (he had posed as a tourist, and brought his wife along for cover).” [Source: Christina Larson, The Atlantic March 22, 2011]

“Alas, the resourcefulness and capacity for personal heroism among some, not all, Chinese reporters too rarely shows through in the final published product. The censor's red pen is hardly the only obstacle. Equally powerful is the appointment system for top personnel. The government designates the editor-in-chief of every newspaper---sometimes it's someone with no interest in the position per se, simply a bureaucrat on his way from being vice-mayor of one city to another. Among other things, this means there's little hope for young stars to rise and envision themselves as leaders. Eventually, the best and brightest, the would-be reformers, drop away.”

In recent months, Yang's aspirations have shifted. Having butted up against the low pay and fact that he'll never advance to the top based on the caliber of his work, he is looking for another career. "The track has ended," he told me. "There is nowhere forward to go." His eyes, as ever, looked big and round, but now somehow dimmer.

I suspect Yang's dilemma---and his career trajectory of hope and disillusionment---could be a metaphor in the future not only for the contradictions of journalism in China, but more generally for the challenge of keeping talent on track in creative fields. Over the next decade, China's government is endeavoring, simultaneously, to transition its economy by fostering a more innovative and entrepreneurial society (per the recently adopted 12th Five Year Plan starkly on information freedom and the Internet. So, how do you hold onto people paid to come up with new ideas---scientists, writers, academics, entrepreneurs---when they bump up against the limits of what's permissible to say? Meanwhile, as for Yang, one alternate career plan is to make money on real-estate speculation.

Long Can, a reporter fired for writing a fake news story that was probably true, told Deutsche Welle; “I’ve been a journalist for 10 years. I’ve never accepted a red envelope [in payment for or against news coverage]. What we make can’t be considered an enviable wage. We keep to our original journalism ideals through the years, and those “ideals” are what we lean on as we plod ahead. Being a journalist has always been cruel and difficult. We always hope for even the simplest measure of care, even the merest regard for our ideals, but these have never in fact been granted---not in terms newspapers themselves or the larger media environment. As journalists we bear all of the risks and pressure. But then we find at the critical moment that we’re 'cast as failures; ...Before I worked hard to ensure that I kept my cool. But this time I’m furious. I feel I’ve lost hope for “journalism.'"

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist

Arrests, Imprisonment and Human Rights Violations Against Journalists in China

China has more imprisoned journalists than any other country. As of September 2007, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, China held 35 journalists and 51 Internet dissidents in prison. By comparison 31 journalists were in prison in 2006 and 42 were in jail in 2004. About three quarters of the journalists were in jail on vague charges for subversion or revealing state secrets.

One journalist was placed on a most-wanted list after a negative story he wrote about a battery manufacturer was published. Another was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “threatening nation security.” In August 2010 four reporters were detained by police for probing the plane crash in Yichun, Heilongjiang Province that killed 42 people. Police later said the detention was a misunderstanding.

In 1992 Xinhua News Agency editor Wu Shishen was sentenced to life in prison for leaking a key speech head of its delivery to a Hong Kong reporter in 1992. He was imprisoned from 1993 to 2005.

In January 2006, Chinese journalist Li Changqing was sentenced to jail for three years for “spreading false and alarmist information.” It was is widely believed to that he was punished for helping an imprisoned anti-corruption crusader.

Gao Qinrong, an investigative journalist for the official Xinhua press agency, was sentenced to 13 years in prison on charges connected with reporting on a bogus irrigation project. He was released after eight years in prison in 2006 and acclaimed as a corruption fighter.

Pang Jianming, a reporter for the China Economic Times, He was fired, prevented from working for other publications and forced to undergo “Marxist ideological education.” His crime: writing a series of stories about substandard materials put in concrete used to make tunnels for a $12 billion high-speed railroad.

In August 2010, plain clothes police officers arrested 55-year-old a Beijing writer Xie Chaoping, who previously accused the local government in Weinan, Shaanxi Province of embezzling funds meant for residents who were forced to relocate because of the Sanmenxia reservoir project. He was charged with “illegal trading.” Xie's daughter told the Global Times Wednesday that Xie was held at a local police station for nearly two weeks, and the local police provided no explanation about her father. “My father's mobile phone was also confiscated by the police and we cannot contact him,” she said. [Source: An Baijie Global Times, September 2, 2010]

The editor of the China Youth Daily was replaced after the newspaper ran a hard-hitting series on corruption. See Bing Dian, or Freezing Point, Southern Metropolitan Daily, Newspapers and Magazines

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist

Arrests, Imprisonment and Human Rights Violations Against Foreign Journalists

In August 2007, Human Rights Watch reported the Chinese government harassed, intimidated and detained foreign journalists---especially those who wrote about sensitive subjects like Tibet, AIDS and demonstrations---in violation of the government’s pledge to allow more openness in the approach to the 2008 Olympics.

Foreign journalists complain their phones are tapped and sources are harassed. Some have been detained for things like trying to cover protests by laid off store workers in Beijing. China generally does not imprison foreign reporters or reporters with foreign publications. It detains them and deports them on charges such as spying.

In September 2004, Zhao Yan, a Chinese researcher who works for the New York Times was arrested on charges of leaking state secrets after he revealed details about Jiang Zemin’s retirement from his last official post. Zhao was acquitted on the leaking secrets charges but was sentenced to three years in prison for fraud related to trumped-up charges that he took money from a Jilin Province official in exchange for helping the official avoid a sentence in forced labor camp. In his trial Zhao was not allowed to testify, call witnesses or present certain evidence. The fraud charges seemed to have been manufactured to justify Zhao’s detainment beyond the allowed legal limit. Zhao was released from prison in September 2007.

In April 2005, Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong resident working for Singaporean newspaper The Strait Times, was detained for doing research related to the Tiananmen Square massacre. He was accused of trying to steal state secrets because he had tried to obtain a manuscript of interviews with Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang. In August 2006, after being detained for 17 months, Ching was sentenced to five years in prison for spying for Taiwan. The government claimed Ching had received $300,000 from a Taiwan foundation that it did not name.

In 2006 plain clothes security agents burst into press conference led by South Korean lawmakers concerning North Korean refugees in China and threatened journalists in audience and physically forced them from the room and cut the electricity in the room.

In August 2008, two Japanese reporters in Kashgar, investigating the attack that left 16 Chinese soldier dead, were detained for two hours, roughed up (one of the reporters said he was kicked in the face) and had their equipment destroyed a couple of days before the beginning of the Olympics in Beijing.

In September 2009, Chinese authorities beat up Kyodo reporters who were trying to cover a rehearsal of the military parade to be staged the 60th anniversary of the founding of Communist China. One reporter and two cameramen were kicked and forced to kneel.

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist

Violence Against Journalists in China

Giles Lordet of Reporters Without Borders said, “For journalists who embarrass local government officials or other very powerful people, China is a very dangerous place.”Journalists have been beaten, detained and sued. In a village in Shandong Province an official was caught on video tape slapping a female television reporter. The video got a lot of exposure after it was posted on the Internet. In China you can find blackmailers posing as journalists and thugs hired by targets of unflattering news stories who beat up the reporters who wrote the stories.

One night Fang Xuanchang, an investigative reporter with Caijing magazine, was jumped by two men with lead pipes men outside his home. The men beat Fang’s head and upper body, unconcerned about people passing by. “They tried to kill me,” said Fang, who, covered in blood, managed to make it to a taxi and get help. He thinks his attacker were hired by doctors that he exposed for promoting miracle cures using research by quack scientists.[Source: John Gliona, Los Angeles Times, August, 2010]

In January 2007, a Chinese journalist was beaten to death with iron bars and pick axes by 20 thugs outside a coal mine near the city of Datong in Shanxi Province. The journalist sustained a broken arm, was bruised all over his body and appeared do have died of a brain hemorrhage. The incident attracted a lot attention. Chinese President Hu Jintao ordered a thorough investigation. The Committee to Protect Journalist reported that a newspaper editor was beaten to death by police officers angry over reports about their involvement in corruption.

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist

Testimony of Attacked Chinese Journalist Attacked

Fang Xuanchang, an editor at Caijing magazine, was on his way home from work around 10:30 on the night of June 24 when he was attacked by two men wielding metal clubs. Fang is a respected science-and-technology journalist, who joined Caijing in March. He believes the attack was connected to his reporting, though he is hoping that police will investigate this vigorously enough to confirm that. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker July 6, 2010] Xuanchang told The New Yorker blog: “I originally thought I was hit by a soccer ball or something, so I didn’t even bother to look back and I just kept walking, until I was beaten again on the back-left side of my head. In retrospect, the first round of the attack was aiming at the back of my head, which is a crucial area, with two metal pipes. It was only because I walked fast, and the attackers moved a bit slow from behind, that they hit my back instead of my head.”

“As I stopped and turned around, my back and shoulders were hit continuously, and then I saw two metal pipes crashing down on my head. Luckily, I was rather calm, and I leaned back just in time to avoid that hit. After that, a series of attacks came down on my head. It was impossible for me to fight back, until I struggled backward for ten or twenty meters, and then ran off for about ten steps, out of their reach, and I was able to face them again. The attackers seemed experienced, in that they didn’t approach me from the front. I tried to kick them, but they withdrew and dodged my kicks; meanwhile, hit my left ankle with the metal pipe, and then ran off to the South.”

“Because my head wound was pouring blood, my shirt and pants were soaked in blood. There was blood all over the ground as well. I knew I needed to get to the hospital. But when I walked back south to the intersection and tried to hail a taxi, the two attackers rushed out from the dark again. They kept beating my head and preventing me from getting a taxi. I had more time to prepare this time, and, fortunately, was calm enough to dodge their blows. I lowered my upper body and ran to the construction site nearby, where subway line No. 9 is under construction. It was only when the attackers realized I was trying to find tools to fight back that they ran off. But they were still watching me from about thirty meters away and waiting for the chance to attack again.”

“At that moment, a taxi stopped in the middle of the intersection and let get in. I was finally able to get to the hospital...The entire incident lasted about four minutes. The next day, by examining the bloodstains on the street, I remembered that there were five or six rounds of attacks, leaving huge blood stains around those areas. There was blood tracked over fifty meters. When I was being attacked, there were many people watching, but the attackers didn’t have to care because, perhaps according to their experience, no one would stand up and help. No one would even dare to call the police. Based on all of this evidence, the two attackers were probably experienced professionals. Their intention was to kill me on the spot, or leave me bleed to death by preventing me from getting to the hospital.”

“I was fortunate that the Naval General Hospital was only a few hundred meters away. The taxi driver noticed that it was emergency and ran red lights to get straight to the hospital. About five minutes after I reached it, I was half-conscious from losing so much blood. The results of my medical examination say: six-centimeter by six-centimeter hematoma on the rear of the head; a five-centimeter deep cut that reached the skull; no estimate on the amount of blood lost; a C.T. exam showed no brain injury. After cleaning up the blood on the rest of my body, I found seven injuries, mostly on my back, from the first round of surprise attacks.”

The police took down the first notes on the 25th before daybreak, and it was soon put on file for investigation and prosecution. The criminal police were involved on the 26th. As of now, it is almost certain that the incident was retaliation for investigative pieces that I have written, because I have never messed with anyone in my personal life. Meanwhile, after further investigation, we have almost confirmed that the two attackers would have not mistaken me as someone else.

This is has been a shock to Chinese journalists. At first, I worried about whether or not should I inform my fellow journalists, because it might have a negative impact on their future reporting. Some of the journalists might not want to be a whistleblower, to expose the truth, if their personal safety is at stake. However, if this type of thing goes unnoticed and un-discussed, China will have even less chance to build a system that can protect its journalists from future tragedy.

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist

Blogger Xu Lai Stabbed in Bookshop

In February 2009, the blogger Xu Lai (also spelled) was stabbed in a Beijing bookshop after giving a speech there. Eyewitnesses said his attackers accused him of “offending people.” Xu wrote under the name pen name ProState. His blog, “ProState in Flames” was read by 130,000 visitors a day and was famous for reprinting a variety of interesting material which often does not get into the mainstream media , Hosted by the liberal blog-host Bullog, the blog was shut down and forced to move locations several times.

According to the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, two men grabbed Xu shortly after he finished speaking and dragged him into the toilets. When his wife forced her way in, she saw that one was holding a dagger while the other one had a kitchen knife and was preparing to hack Xu's hand. The men fled from the One Way Street bookshop before anyone could catch them.

It was not determined who the attackers were. According to various reports, the attackers said either "We're here for revenge," "You'll know better than to offend people next time," or "You brought this on yourself. You know why you're doing this, don't you?" According to the Southern Metropolis Daily he described Xu as "a low-key sort of person who wouldn't provoke anyone. However, there are many things on his blog that can touch a nerve and he has probably made enemies that way."

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist

Reporter Killed Because of the Cooking Oil Scam?

AFP reported: “A Chinese journalist who had been following a scandal involving the sale of cooking oil made from leftovers taken from gutters has been stabbed to death, police and state media said. Li Xiang, 30, a reporter with Luoyang Television Station in the central province of Henan, was knifed more than 10 times as he returned home from a karaoke session with friends, the Zhengzhou Evening News reported. [Source: AFP, September 20 2011]

The laptop computer Li had been carrying was missing and police were treating the case as a murder-robbery, but have not ruled other motives, the report added. The last post on Li's micro-blog on September 15 said web users "had complained that Luanchuan county (in Henan) has dens manufacturing gutter cooking oil, but the food safety commission replied that they didn't find any".

Bloggers said they suspected Li's death was related to his previous reports on the "gutter" cooking oil cases."Luoyang Television Station reporter Li Xiang got stabbed to death, I suspect it's related to his reports on 'gutter' cooking oil," a web user said on Sina's popular social networking site Weibo. "Li Xiang's stabbing death is the unfortunate outcome of investigating the gutter cooking oil cases," another user said.

In September 2011, police in central Henan Province arrested two men suspected of killing Li. Police in the city of Luoyang said the murder was not connected with the gutter oil scandal. They said the two suspects killed Mr. Li during a robbery early morning outside the gate of his apartment complex. The men stole his laptop, camera and wallet after stabbing him 10 times, the police said. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, September 21, 2011]

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist

Magazine Executives Punished for Quoting Historian

Chen Zhong, president of the Guangzhou-based bi-weekly Nanfeng Chuang (Window on the South), was removed from his post, though not dismissed, and editor Zhao Lingmin was suspended. They were punished for publishing an interview with a Taiwanese historian, Tang Chi-hua, that was critical of Sun Yat-sen, a revolutionary leader in the early 20th century. [Source: The Guardian August 22, 2011]

"Punishing Chen Zhong and Zhao Lingmin for quoting a historian is absurd and a sign of the tightening restrictions on professional reporters across China this year," said Committee to Protect Journalists' (CPJ) deputy director Robert Mahoney. "Some of China's best journalists are falling victim to the Communist party's sustained efforts to stamp out views it fears."

This year, the CPJ has documented a number of journalists fired for reporting in China, though the dismissals are often couched as suspensions, sabbaticals, or resignations to disguise the retributive motive: 1) China Central Television's 24 Hours news producer Wang Qinglei was suspended earlier this month. He reported on the 23 July train crash. 2) The investigative unit of the China Economic Times, was disbanded in July for reasons that remain unclear. 3) Two Guangzhou-based journalists lost their jobs in March: Time Weekly's Peng Xiaoyun for interviewing dissidents, and Southern Weekend's Chen Ming for writing on political reform. 4) Veteran editor and columnist Zhang Ping, who writes as Chang Ping, was forced to resign by Guangzhou's Southern Media Group, which publishes Southern Weekend and other titles, for writing on political and media issues.

Image Sources: Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist, Global Times Chinese:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2011

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