Buzzfeed’s China bureau chief, Megha Rajagopalan, who has reported from the country for six years, announced on Twitter last week that the Chinese government had refused to renew her journalist visa, effectively expelling her. The authorities did not explain the decision, which came after her recent reports exposing the growing abuses in the Muslim minority region of Xinjiang, which surely drew the authorities’ ire. The Chinese state tabloid Global Times published an op-ed that called her work “delusional western reporting”.
Rajagopalan’s expulsion follows those of French reporter Ursula Gauthier in 2015 and US journalist Melissa Chan in 2012. The US journalists Paul Mooney and Austin Ramzy were denied visas to work in China either because of their reporting on human rights issues or because their news organisations had dug into top leaders’ murky web of wealth.
The retribution against foreign correspondents is the tip of the iceberg as authorities tighten their grip on the media, particularly since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013. In a tour of state media outlets in 2016, Xi told them they must always “reflect the will of the [Chinese Communist] party”.
The brunt of government press controls is often borne by Chinese journalists, who face intimidation, assault and imprisonment for doing their jobs. In February 2018, the Shandong reporter Qi Chonghuai was released after more than 10 years in prison – during which he was tortured – for reporting on corruption. Freelance journalist Chen Jieren, who ran a blog that routinely criticised party officials, has been detained since August for “fraud” and running an “illegal business”.
The state’s censorship machine does not simply scrub out sensitive information. Instead, it generates a sophisticated mirage – a technique the authorities call “directing public opinion” – that allows some accurate reporting but not a full picture of a particular problem. Before Human Rights Watch published an investigative report on the Chinese police’s use of torture in 2015, I contacted a number of Chinese journalists. They told me that while it was possible to report on isolated cases of torture, portraying torture as “routine” – a central finding of our report – would be completely off-limits.
So when people read about others falling victim to forced evictions or land seizures without adequate compensation – topics the state media are allowed to report – they can only see them as unfortunate, isolated incidents, the kind of things that can happen to anyone anywhere. When people point their fingers to systemic failure in government accountability – such as when the public reacted angrily to a recent scandal of faulty vaccines – state censors were quick to put a positive spin by broadcasting top leaders’ commitment to addressing the problem.
Imagine how perceptions at home and abroad would change if Chinese government officials, like their counterparts in democracies, were required to answer questions about rumours concerning their unexplained wealth or culpability in public policy debacles in genuine interviews, as opposed to scripted media meetings. What if we could learn the full extent of the authorities’ human rights violations against Xinjiang’s 13 million Turkic Muslims, as we did with the campaign against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, when the world was flooded with numerous photos and videos illustrating their plight?
In Xinjiang, much of the repression is shrouded in secrecy. The authorities so aggressively censor the topic such that domestic journalists know to steer well clear of it, while foreign journalists such as Rajagopalan are closely watched when they venture into that region. As a result, we cannot peer inside the unlawful “political education camps” forcibly indoctrinating hundreds of thousands of Muslims or get a sense of how Turkic Muslims feel when officials occupy their homes as imposed “relatives” to surveil them.
The world would probably have reacted to China’s growing human rights violations in Xinjiang, the rest of China and, increasingly, abroad, with much greater alarm. For that reason, the Chinese government gave Rajagopalan, whose reporting failed to “reflect the will of the party”, the boot.