TorStar Asia Correspondent Hassled in China

China's 60 mile traffic jam of coal trucks lasted 10 days.

China's 60 mile traffic jam of coal trucks lasted 10 days.

Contrary to popular belief, China is still Communist. There has been no change of political will, only the naive belief of foreigners that as China becomes wealthier that China will abide by its own rules of law. This is not the case, as the Toronto Star’s Asia correspondent Bill Schiller, found out. He traveled a little outside Beijing into the countryside only 3 hours train ride away, only to find out that things are run differently in the countryside. Reporters do get hassled and told in uncertain terms to leave.

Surprised he should not be, and from his writing this seemed evident. It sounds like he expected to be questioned, but not hassled by multiple levels of police and politicians.

Let’s set down some assumptions. Schiller is probably an accredited journalist in China, which means that, barring special cases such as Tibet, he can roam the vast expanse of the Middle Kingdom at will, writing whatever drivel that comes out of his middle orifice. Police, army nor politicians should not impede his reporting unless he has broken some law of the land. These privileges are backed up by some big wig bureaucrat in Beijing, and maybe a law that covers foreign journalists. The free reign of foreign journalists in China has been touted as proof positive that China is a welcoming and “open” country to foreign friends.

This is openness is not quite true, as many a foreign journalist has found out. While there has been improvements over the years, even during the 2008 Olympics when all eyes were on China, foreign journalists complained of rough treatment and arrest by Chinese police. China is at least consistent if not fair.

Even if a journalist is roughed up or barred from entering some Chinese location, while there must be a complaints process, such as the Office of Foreign Affairs or such, one should not be surprised if you get no satisfactory result. The damage has already been done, the foreign journalist was barred from what someone believed to be a sensitive Chinese issue, and this was done for the common good of China. The ends justifies the means, at least behind the scenes.

I would hesitate to say that China outright lies about their openness to foreign journalists. No, I think there is a cultural difference that should be noted. If foreign journalists would only report on the good aspects of Chinese life, there would be no issue of banned access. When reporting on a perceived negative or suspect aspects of Chinese life, for the good of the reputation of the greater China and the face of the Chinese race, these foreign devils should expect to get a kick in the keister. This is “openness” Chinese style.

Similar to North America and Europe, China has laws. Dissimilar is that these laws are there to protect the individual from the state and not to protect the state from the individual. This means that laws are used to control civilians and not used to control the government, police or politicians. This difference is very important, as the belief that China’s laws will protect you from a crooked politician’s wrath might land you in isolation for a couple of months in a black jail. As Mr Schiller found out, local politicians and police routinely use this “upper hand” to remove miscreants that have shown up on their patch. They know they are legally allowed to do this and they use it to their advantage.

Let’s get back to Bill Schiller, the TorStar Asia Correspondent and his shiny accredited journalist badge. You are a white foreigner stopped at a truck stop for coal trucks heading into Beijing. If you were Chinese like Jan Wong you might have had better luck, but as is, you stuck out like a sore thumb. There are secret police at near every truck stop in China. What did you expect from local politicians who are trying to cover up their problems with the clogged highway. This is causing Beijing much lost productivity and Beijing politicians much lost face, as this story has been carried around the world. The heat from Beijing travels downstream to these local politicians, who, unsurprisingly, were not welcoming to your presence. Frankly I am glad that Mr Schiller was so accommodating, or he would have been thrown in jail and beaten to a pulp by local police and paid thugs.

This is not a condemnation of the actions of Mr Schiller, only an explanation of why he was treated like a pariah. I realize that he is a journalist and writes stories for a living. I have read as many of his stories as I can and am very thankful for his insights. Still, when there is a sensitive issue in China all journalists, Chinese or foreign, should expect a crackdown from the local and national governments.

It’s nothing personal, Mr Schiller, it is just the way China works. The profession of journalist in China, like the profession of lawyer, can be hazardous to your health. Do as you are expected and you should do just fine. If you think you have been done wrong, you should see what happens to the people that you interview.

Note: The whole legal vs reality dichotomy in China is very intriguing. Cases occur in such regularity but seem to not shock people. Here is another example where an outspoken Chinese magazine, Caijing, researched black jails, which are technically illegal in China. Editors got hounded by the police. Only after they reported being hounded that some Beijing politician stepped in to remove one company. The other hundreds of companies that illegally detain and beat up citizens and throw them into private black jails are still in operation. The highlighted company is closed down, its owners jailed, in order for China and Beijing to save face. It matters little that the huge problem still exists.

Prior to this police investigation, authorities have always denied the existence of the detention centers, and the fact that they’ve acknowledged them is good news. But don’t jump to the conclusion that the government is now committed to cleaning out the black jail system just yet.

After Caijing published its investigation of the illegal security firm, police officers began harassing its editors to reveal its sources, arguing that the article threatened “stability and unity.” It was only after Caijing publicized another article reporting that incident that Beijing’s new police chief personally apologized to the deputy editor, assuring him that no one on the staff would be punished, eventually calling for the investigation.

But even with Anyuanding’s shut down, it is only one company in a long, messy web of officials protecting themselves from “disharmony.” Really curing the country of its black jails will take nothing short of a major petition system overhaul.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *