VI. Other Foreign Media Forbidden Zones

Although foreign correspondents in China can and do experience harassment, detention, and intimidation covering even seemingly benign subjects, three issues have become particularly sensitive over the past 18 months: the plight of petitioners (citizens from the countryside who come to Beijing seeking legal redress for abuses at the rural grassroots), protests and demonstrations, and interviews with high profile dissidents and human rights activists. 


China’s tradition of petitioning, or shangfang (上访, “visiting higher [authorities]”), is a legally recognized mechanism dating back to imperial times which allows Chinese citizens to seek official redress for alleged abuses by local officials.205 The petitioning system allows citizens unsatisfied with the decisions handed down by such officials or local courts to complain in writing or in person at special petition bureaus throughout the country.206 The petition bureaus in Beijing are the top and final bureaucratic level of the petitioning system and can daily receive visits from hundreds of petitioners from across the country.207

However, despite the legality of the petitioning system, petitioners are often subject to abuses, including kidnapping by representatives of local governments embarrassed by and/or subject to financial penalties linked to the presence in Beijing of petitioners from their local districts.208 Some local governments now run their own “black jails,” or illegal detention facilities, in Beijing to detain petitioners before forcibly returning them to their rural homes.209 Foreign correspondents’ coverage of petitioners’ issues in the second half of 2007 led to harassment by security forces and sometimes violent interference by plainclothes thugs who appeared to operate at official behest.

On September 10, 2007, Reuters’ senior correspondent Chris Buckley was able to slip into a suburban Beijing “black jail” used to detain petitioners from Henan province’s Nanyang municipality.210 The jail, a two-storey locked building inside a Henan provincial government-owned hotel compound, held eight petitioners who complained to Buckley of ill-treatment ranging from inadequate food to physical violence by guards.211 As Buckley left the illegal jail, he was tackled by a group of muscled toughs. The men, who refused to identify themselves, but who Buckley suspects were plainclothes police due to their demeanor and style of clothing, kicked and punched him and confiscated his notes, camera, and tape recorder.212 The men detained Buckley for two hours, denied his requests to contact his employer and his embassy, and threatened him with serious physical injury when he protested his confinement.

A big mean cop reacted to my complaints by grabbing me by my lapels and yelled “I’ll finish you off!” I didn’t feel like he was going to kill me [but] it frightened me because I thought I could be very badly beaten.213

Uniformed police officers who later arrived on the scene facilitated Buckley’s release, but took no legal action against the men who’d effectively kidnapped him and inflicted bruises and abrasions on his upper body.214

On September 14, 2007, a television news crew from the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 attempted to visit the same “black jail,” but encountered a far more proactive security system in place to prevent their access. The Channel 4 team began filming from outside the main gates of the facility and briefly interviewed detainees who were outside the facility’s main building but locked behind the compound’s gate; the detainees claimed they had been illegally detained and subjected to ill-treatment.215 Within minutes, plainclothes guards emerged from the facility, interrupted the interview, and tried to smash the Channel 4 team’s video camera.216 The team was detained for six hours in the facility and when police arrived on the scene, they accused the Channel 4 team of violating the temporary regulations by failing to obtain the facility’s detainees’ consent for interviews.217 The correspondents’ detention ended only after police read a list of alleged “offenses” committed by the journalists, including “filming a government building without permission,” and demanded that they surrender film footage shot at the facility.218 The Channel 4 team surrendered a different tape to the police and was then released, but its local translator was held an additional four hours for questioning.219  

In September and October 2007, a “petitioners’ village” in Beijing’s Fengtai district was demolished. The low-rent neighborhood, which had attracted large numbers of petitioners due to its proximity to the relevant government offices, was demolished on the pretext of road construction. The facts surrounding the demolition strongly suggest it was a pretext specifically designed to clear large numbers of petitioners out of Beijing ahead of the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2007.220

Several journalists who tried to cover the demolition told Human Rights Watch about the problems they encountered. Uniformed Beijing Public Security Bureau officials repeatedly harassed Finnish Broadcasting Corporation (YLE) journalist Katri Makkonen over the course of her two days in Fengtai in September 2007.221 The officials repeatedly asked for her identification, interrupted her interviews on the grounds that she was “disrupting traffic,” and prohibited her from filming nearby government buildings.222 Police contacted Makkonen and her cameraman’s taxi driver within minutes of their departure from the petitioners’ village, trying to determine her destination. “They must have tracked the cab driver’s mobile phone number using his license plate details.”223

Protests and Demonstrations

Article 35 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees its citizens the right to public protest by granting them “freedom of speech….of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” However, protests in China tend to invite repercussions unless the government explicitly or implicitly approves of the purposes of such demonstrations.

The Chinese government has in recent years organized or permitted public protests which are considered supportive of official propaganda goals, such as those in the wake of NATO’s May 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.224 In April 2005, Beijing security forces permitted demonstrators angry about Japanese textbooks, which downplayed Japan’s World War II-era atrocities to lay siege to the Japanese embassy and other diplomatic facilities for several days.225 

But protests and demonstrations which the Chinese government does not officially organize or sanction carries serious risks for participants, who are seen as implicitly challenging the government’s carefully cultivated veneer of “social stability” and a “harmonious society.” Thousands of public protests on issues ranging from labor disputes to environmental pollution occur every year in China, and the protesters all face the risk of abuse, including arrest, by police.226

Foreign media who attempt to report on unauthorized protests and demonstrations run similar risks. Since early 2007, the FCCC has documented at least seven such incidents. For example, on August 6, 2007, around twelve foreign correspondents were detained by police in central Beijing for up to 90 minutes for attempting to cover a press conference and protest on media freedom restrictions in China organized by the international nongovernmental organization Reporters Without Borders.227 On January 12, 2008, Shanghai police detained correspondent Ola Wong of the Swedish newspaper Sydvenska Dagbladet and held her for an hour in a police station for “illegal reporting.” Wong had tried to cover a public protest in Shanghai’s People’s Square by Shanghai residents opposed to a transportation infrastructure development.228

Foreign correspondents have encountered far more serious interference while trying to report on simmering discontent in the village of Shengyou in Hebei province. The village was the site of a horrific violence in June 2005 when plainclothes thugs carrying clubs, metal pipes and hunting rifles arrived in the village in six hired buses to confront local villagers protesting alleged illegal land confiscation.229 The confrontation resulted in the deaths of six local farmers and injuries to dozens more. It also sparked a series of protests by villagers seeking compensation for the June 2005 incident.230

BBC correspondent Dan Griffiths was detained and questioned for a full-day in September 2007 by police who intercepted him while he was trying to enter Shengyou on foot and who refused to recognize the Olympics-related temporary regulations on foreign journalists’ media freedom.231 The police, some of whom declined to identify themselves, attempted to confiscate Griffiths’s mobile phone, forcibly escorted him to the nearby village of Dingzhou where they interrogated him for hours about his local sources in Shengyou and the reasons for his visit.232 Most disturbingly, Griffiths discovered the next day after driving back to Beijing that persons unknown—but possibly the police who had detained him—had “tampered with our car by removing several of the bolts that attach the wheels [of his car] to the chassis.”233

In October 2007, a European television news journalist and her cameraman also encountered severe interference while attempting to report from Shengyou. The reporter had successfully completed two on-camera interviews with local villagers when she and her cameraman were detained and beaten by seven plainclothes thugs.234 The thugs declined to identify themselves and instead confiscated the correspondents’ camera and video tapes.235 The plainclothes thugs subjected the female reporter to repeated physical and verbal abuse in the first hour of her detention.236

I called my embassy, and while I was making the call, the plainclothes thug in the car next to me kept hitting me and pulling my hair. When they tried to take my notebook [I resisted so] they pushed me to the ground roughly and one [plainclothes thug] kicked me in the side.237

The thugs detained the television crew for five hours until a local foreign ministry official arrived and arranged the return of their camera and tapes. The correspondents later discovered that police or government officials had erased their Shengyou village interview footage.238

On December 26, 2007, a foreign correspondent who had traveled to the town of Dongzhou in southern Guangdong province to confirm reports of a protest by local citizens opposed to the construction of a power plant in the village was detained and questioned for an hour by plainclothes police.239 The journalist discovered that the town was under what appeared to be a security lockdown supported by “dozens” of People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police personnel patrolling the streets.240  

While he was walking down a narrow alley in center of the town, the journalist was accosted by three plainclothes policemen who grabbed his arms from behind him and ordered the correspondent to accompany them to their car. The correspondent’s captors, who ordered him not to use his mobile phone while he was in their custody,  didn’t identify themselves, but drove him to a clearly identifiable police station on the outskirts of Dongzhou. A man who identified himself as the spokesman from the local office of the Chinese Communist Party then questioned the correspondent for about 45 minutes about his intentions in Dongzhou. The party official dismissed the correspondent’s insistence that the temporary regulations on reporting rights for foreign media allowed him to legally report from Dongzhou. “He explained [Chinese] law allows [the authorities] to decide ‘hot zones,’ areas where people might be in danger so they had the right to detain me.”241 After an hour in detention, the police drove the journalist to the neighboring town of Shantou and checked him into “one of the better hotels” from where a local foreign ministry official escorted the correspondent the next morning onto the 9 a.m. bus back to Guangzhou.242


Numerous foreign correspondents have attempted to take the temporary regulations at face value and interview dissidents, particularly high-profile human rights activists, who want to tell their stories. For example, on January 1, 2007, Reutersconducted a face-to-face interview with Bao Tong, a former top aide to disgraced Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, his first with foreign media since 1998.243 Other journalists noted easier access to the husband-and-wife human rights activists Hu Jia and Zeng Jinyan244 and Yuan Weijing, wife of jailed blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng.245

Over the past year, however, many journalists seeking to conduct such interviews have reported interference, including implicit and explicit threats of violence, from government officials, security forces, and plainclothes thugs who appear to operate at official behest. Foreign journalists told Human Rights Watch that their efforts to contact these dissidents, either in person or electronically, were curtailed.

After Hu Jia’s December 27, 2007, arrest and subsequent conviction on April 3, 2008, for “inciting subversion against state power,” the media lost access to him. But police also now routinely block journalists’ physical access to his wife Zeng who has been under house arrest since May 18, 2007.246 Zeng’s electronic communications are only occasionally blocked, allowing her to still do phone interviews with foreign media and to regularly update her personal blog247 on which she documents the daily reality of her house arrest.

Foreign journalists frequently encounter interference when trying to enter Zeng Jinyan’s housing complex. In March 2008, a foreign television crew trying to enter Zeng’s apartment building was stopped by two to three plainclothes policemen in an unmarked car, who strung yellow police tape across the entrance.248

We tried walking in with the camera running but they said we couldn’t go in [to Zeng’s building] because it was the site of a “police investigation.” One of the policemen started taking our [identification] details and threatened our cameraman by saying “Don’t shoot. If I see myself on TV, I am coming to get you.”249

A foreign photographer who accompanied two wire service colleagues to Hu and Zeng’s apartment complex had a similar encounter with police in January 2008. As the three journalists approached Hu and Zeng’s building, four plainclothes policemen and one uniformed member of Beijing municipal police got out of an unmarked black car and started hanging yellow police tape in front of the building’s entranceway, blocking the journalists’ access. “They then told us we couldn’t enter due to a ‘safety’ issue, but they let local residents enter without any problem.”250

The FCCC has documented several incidents in which foreign correspondents have faced interference while trying to interview Yuan Weijing, wife of imprisoned grassroots legal defender Chen Guangcheng, over the past year.  Police detained a total of seven correspondents from three media outlets, including Hong Kong’s Cable TV, for an hour following their interview with Yuan on August 24, 2007.251 Seven police stopped the journalists and demanded their official press card and passport details before releasing them, interference which prevented the correspondents from accompanying Yuan to the Beijing Capital Airport as planned.252 “Six to seven plainclothes thugs” pelted a four-member television news crew from Germany’s ARD TV with rocks on January 24, 2008, preventing them from interviewing Yuan.253 None of the journalists were injured, but ARD correspondent Joschen Grabert described the incident as “a dangerous situation.”254

Dissidents who consent to foreign journalists’ interviews are also subject to verbal abuse by officials or thugs. Zheng Enchong, a Shanghai-based land rights lawyer currently under house arrest, and his wife Jiang Meili were harangued by a private security guard at his housing complex in May 2008 for allowing an Associated Press reporter to photograph them. “‘Are you Chinese,’ a guard shouted at Zheng and Jiang. ‘What are you telling the foreigner? You traitors! They come here to take photos of you, and in our eyes you look like dogs.’”255

205 Human Rights Watch, China- We Could Disappear at Any Time, vol.17, no.11 (C),December 2005,

206 Ibid.

207  Ibid.

208 Ibid.

209  Chris Buckley, “Chinese jail makes silencing protest a business,” Reuters (Beijing), September 11, 2007.

210  Human Rights Watch interview with Chris Buckley, Reuters senior China correspondent (Beijing), March 23, 2008.

211 Ibid.

212 Ibid.

213 Ibid.

214 Ibid.

215  Human Rights Watch interview with Andrew Carter, Channel 4 correspondent, Beijing, September 17, 2008.

216  Ibid.

217  Ibid.

218  Ibid.

219  Ibid.

220  “China: Beijing Petitioners’ Village Faces Demolition,” Human Rights Watch news release, September 6, 2007,

221  Human Rights Watch interview with Katri Makkonen, Finnish Broadcasting Corporation’s China correspondent, Beijing, December 30, 2007.

222  Ibid.

223  Ibid.

224 Shawn W. Crispin, “Double-Edged Fury: Nato's bombing of a Chinese embassy,” Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong), May 20, 1999.

225  Jim Yardley, “Chinese Nationalism Fuels Crackdown on Tibet,” The New York Times (New York), March 31, 2008.

226 Andrew Torchia, “Chinese protests turn assertive; Fight against 'maglev' fuels cultural changes,” Reuters (Shanghai), January 16, 2008.

227 Foreign Correspondents Club of China, “Reporting Interference Incidents,” (accessed May 19, 2008).

228  Ibid.

229  “Violence flares again in northern Chinese village,” Agence France Presse (Beijing), September 13, 2007.

230 Ibid.

231  “Venturing into unreported China,”, September 7, 2007, (accessed on May 19, 2008).

232  Ibid.

233  Ibid.

234  Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, April 1, 2008.

235  Ibid.

236  Ibid.

237  Ibid.

238  Ibid.

239  Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Guangzhou, April 21, 2008.

240  Ibid.

241  Ibid.

242  Ibid.

243  Benjamin Kang-Lim and Ben Blanchard, “China sticks, in part, to vow on media freedom,” Reuters (Beijing), January 1, 2007.

244 “Olympic breath of fresh air for China's rights activists,” Agence France Press (Beijing), January 14, 2007.

245  Paul Mooney, “Cost of standing by your man,” South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), November 11, 2007.

246 Mure Dickey, “Beijing and the baby milk of human kindness,”, March 10, 2008, (accessed May 19, 2008).

247 Zeng Jinyan’s personal blog:

248  Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, March 25, 2008.

249  Ibid.

250  Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, March 30, 2008.

251  Foreign Correspondents Club of China, “Reporting Interference Incidents,” (accessed May 19, 2008).

252  Ibid.

253  Ibid.

254  Ibid.

255 Cara Anna, “Lawyer’s plight highlights perils of fighting China’s system,” Associated Press

(Beijing), May 10, 2008.