Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Western journalists' China visa dramas: Don't shoot the messenger

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
December 23, 2013 -- Updated 0115 GMT (0915 HKT)
CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz has been working as a journalist in China for three decades. Here he files a report for Newsweek Magazine's Beijing bureau in 1981. CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz has been working as a journalist in China for three decades. Here he files a report for Newsweek Magazine's Beijing bureau in 1981.
30 years of reporting in China
  • Two dozen China journalists in tense wait for reporting visas after controversial stories
  • Reporting from China both rewarding and frustrating, says Jaime FlorCruz
  • Journalist working conditions have improved since 1980s
  • Challenges remain as China's importance in global news coverage increases

Editor's note: Jaime's China is a column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. Now CNN's Beijing bureau chief, he studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and was TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) -- Every December, foreign correspondents in China go through the rigmarole of renewing press cards and visas, which typically run out at the end of the year.

This time around, Chinese authorities held up renewing the credentials of roughly two dozen Bloomberg and New York Times reporters after the two American news outfits published muckraking stories about the wealth of the families of top Chinese leaders.

READ: China blocks website after report on Wen Jiabao's wealth

Without renewed press cards, they could not renew their Chinese visas. Without the visas, reporters and their families would be forced to leave China.

"5 Days Till Visa Expiry," New York Times reporter Andrew Jacobs, tweeted on Tuesday.

TIMELINE: Journalists under pressure

"Do you think hauling all my stuff to gates of the Foreign Ministry holding a tag sale will get their attention?"

After a tense wait, all Bloomberg reporters and some of the New York Times reporters picked up their renewed press cards on Thursday.

China gets tough on foreign television
Reports: China censored newspaper
China falls for 'Onion' jab on Kim

"We are in contact with Chinese officials and remain hopeful that our resident journalists in the country will be issued visas that will allow them to continue to work there," New York Times spokesperson, Emily Murphy, told me by email.

This is a welcome development, but to fellow reporters in China that's a small consolation.

"So we've come down to this," said Newsweek correspondent Melinda Liu. "We rejoice over something that used to be routine."

Working as a foreign correspondent in China sounds glamorous and rewarding, and quite often it is. We cover landmark events, interview fascinating personalities and travel to exotic places.

But, as the visa controversy shows, it also involves a lot of hard work and hassles -- China ranks 173 out of 179 countries for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Early frustrations

When I was just cutting my teeth as a foreign correspondent in the 1980s, the rules and regulations were so tight that it was difficult to get access to people and travel outside of Beijing.

Many places were not accessible to foreigners. A lot of information was deemed "neibu", or for internal consumption only.

A story done in one afternoon in most other beats would take weeks of waiting and gestation in China.

The protracted process often lead to unsatisfying results -- and frustrations.

Doing an enterprise story then was difficult and dangerous.

I remember doing a story for TIME magazine in the late 1980s. We traveled to rural Renshou county, Sichuan Province to follow up on reports of farmers rioting over local corruption.

Just minutes after we had started interviewing a group of farmers gathered in a home, three men in civilian clothes barged in and started to ask who we were and why we were there.

We cut short our interview and hopped into our rented car. The local driver was as scared as I was. "Those people can be ruthlessly violent," he told me.

Technically, such reporting trips violated China's "10-day rule", which required foreign journalists to secure permission from local "waiban" (foreign affairs office) 10 days in advance before we could conduct reporting outside our home base in Beijing or Shanghai.

Whenever we were caught doing so, Chinese authorities gave us verbal reprimands or asked us to write "self-criticisms."

China is changing

To be sure, the working conditions for foreign reporters have significantly improved compared to 1982, when I started my career as a China correspondent.

FlorCruz reporting on bird flu cases.  FlorCruz reporting on bird flu cases.
FlorCruz reporting on bird flu cases.FlorCruz reporting on bird flu cases.

China has allowed more reporters into the country, allowing expanded coverage about varied, lighter aspects of Chinese life.

In 1977, one year after Chairman Mao Zedong's death, there were only 39 foreign reporters in China. The number increased to about 100 when my China role began five years later.

Now, our ranks have expanded to nearly 700 working for 441 news outlets from 59 countries, mostly based in Beijing and Shanghai.

We used to be focused on human rights issues and politics. Now we report on a gamut of themes -- health, finance, Internet and fashion among them.

Over the years the restrictions have loosened, especially right before the 2008 Olympics when China rescinded the 10-day rule.

We still face problems, especially in the provinces where officials have vested interests and narrow ways of viewing things.

To them, foreign journalists -- and our reporting -- can create trouble for them, especially when we expose wrongdoings and abuses.

Local officials need to be told that the new normal is to allow us to conduct interviews and photo shoots freely.

They need to understand how foreign journalists operate, why we do things a certain way, why we need information promptly and accurately.

To be fair, there are many Chinese officials I know who subscribe to this new mindset and have been trying hard to shake things up or do things differently.

Some of them are quite frustrated with the result of their efforts.

"Too much negativity," complains one.

"We have tried hard to give access to foreign journalists but their stories still end up negative. We don't expect them to report like Chinese journalists but we hope they will be just objective and even-handed."

I hope these officials will keep pushing forward, instead of backward. It will show a measure of self-confidence and will push China closer to the international norms and standards of media management.

Important future role

Indeed although it's a lot easier now serving as a foreign correspondent there's still much to be desired.

In a year-end statement, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China noted "a number of negative trends over the past year." Their list includes:

-- denial of visa to Paul Mooney, a long-time reporter known for his reporting on human rights;

-- new rules that stipulate the police may take a maximum of 15 business days to process visas, which means that reporters cannot leave the country during this period; and

-- spontaneous designation of locations, such as Tiananmen Square, where special permission is said to be required to film or report.

Meanwhile, censorship continues. Web sites containing material considered sensitive by the Chinese government are often blocked.

Cable television channels such as CNN and the BBC are closely monitored and sensitive topics are routinely blacked out.

We, as media, must also remain vigilant against self-censorship.

I feel little personal risk as a reporter, but our biggest concern remains the protection of sources who are usually more vulnerable to the government's control. None of us wish to land them in jail.

China is a crucial news beat for CNN and our audience. As the country evolves into a freer, more pluralistic society, the importance of covering China in all its many facets will only grow. There is a lot about the country, its people and culture our audience wants to know.

However, we cannot talk about the world's most populous country -- and the world's second biggest economy -- while avoiding inconvenient issues and unpleasant subjects.

As journalists, we are bearers of news, both good and bad.

We just ask: don't shoot the messenger.

Part of complete coverage on
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1113 GMT (1913 HKT)
A smuggler in Dandong, a Chinese border town near North Korea, tells CNN about the underground trade with North Korean soldiers
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 0654 GMT (1454 HKT)
Yenn Wong got quite a surprise one morning earlier this month when she found out an exact copy of her Hong Kong restaurant had opened in China.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0315 GMT (1115 HKT)
When I first came across a "virtual lover" service on e-commerce site Taobao, China's version of Amazon, I thought it was hype.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Each year Yi Jiefeng does what she can to stop China turning into a desert.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1454 GMT (2254 HKT)
As its relationship with the West worsen, Russia is pivoting east in an attempt to secure business with China.
October 8, 2014 -- Updated 0229 GMT (1029 HKT)
Aspiring Chinese comics performing in Shanghai's underground comedy scene hope to bring stand-up to the masses.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1654 GMT (0054 HKT)
Liu Wen is one of the world's highest-paid models and the first Chinese face to crack the top five in Forbes' annual list of top earners.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Cunning wolf? Working class hero? Or bland Beijing loyalist? C.Y. Leung was a relative unknown when he came to power in 2012.
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
 A man uses his smartphone on July 16, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. Only 53.5% of Japanese owned smartphones in March, according to a white paper released by the Ministry of Communications on July 15, 2014. The survey of a thousand participants each from Japan, the U.S., Britain, France, South Korea and Singapore, demonstrated that Japan had the fewest rate of the six; Singapore had the highest at 93.1%, followed by South Korea at 88.7%, UK at 80%, and France at 71.6%, and U.S. at 69.6% in the U.S. On the other hand, Japan had the highest percentage of regular mobile phone owners with 28.7%. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
App hopes to help those seeking a way out of China's overstrained public health system.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 0020 GMT (0820 HKT)
Yards from pro-democracy protests, stands the Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's armed forces.
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1123 GMT (1923 HKT)
The massive street rallies that have swept Hong Kong present a major dilemma for China's leadership.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0707 GMT (1507 HKT)
Chinese wine drinkers need to develop a taste for the cheap stuff, not just premium red wines like Lafite.
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0109 GMT (0909 HKT)
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, set off a media kerfuffle this month when he spoke about his next reincarnation.
September 28, 2014 -- Updated 1418 GMT (2218 HKT)
He's one of the fieriest political activists in Hong Kong — he's been called an "extremist" by China's state-run media — and he's not old enough to drive.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 0257 GMT (1057 HKT)
China has no wine-making tradition but the country now uncorks more bottles of red than any other.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 0929 GMT (1729 HKT)
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 0538 GMT (1338 HKT)
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.