On Ethics

The Balancing Act Of Reporting In China

Xi Jinping, China's newly appointed leader, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Xi Jinping, China's newly appointed leader, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Ed Jones/Getty Images News hide caption

itoggle caption Ed Jones/Getty Images News

Reporting as a foreigner in an authoritarian country can be dangerous for a correspondent, but even more treacherous for the local citizens she or he interviews.

This is the case in China, especially as it goes through its current once-in-a-decade power transition. A series of political scandals and protests has the Chinese government on edge, even more than is usual.

NPR foreign correspondent Louisa Lim, a veteran China hand, was well aware of the sensitivities as she filed a story about the small hometown of Xi Jinping, the newly named head of the Communist Party. "The villagers there are suspicious and tight-lipped," Lim said on air about Liangjiahe in Shaanxi Province. "They've been ordered not to talk to journalists."

So when she gave the name of a hearing-impaired, 84-year-old man that she interviewed, one listener understandably wondered what was up. Wrote David Fine of Camp Hill, Pa.:

Perhaps I misunderstood, but I must say Louisa Lim's report on the hometown of the new Chinese premier caused me some concern. She reported that local citizens had been instructed by the government not to speak with the foreign press. But one older man spoke with her, a fact that Ms. Lim attributed to his perhaps not having heard the government's edict because of his poor hearing. If that is so, isn't there some reason to worry that, if the government learns that this man spoke with NPR, he might suffer some repercussion? In any event, given that danger, wasn't it wrong for Ms. Lim to interview him and air the actualities knowing that he did not knowingly choose to risk retribution?

We passed his note on to Lim. Her response not only explains why it was safe to cite the man, but also offers an insight into how a correspondent works under censorship and tight controls. She wrote:

As foreign correspondents in China, one of the biggest dilemmas we face is reporting without endangering our interviewees. In the past ten years I've been based in China, I've come across different levels of intimidation. Sometimes we are detained or turned back by Chinese security forces. Sometimes we smuggle ourselves through police checkpoints. Sometimes local officials turn up halfway through our interviews to tell us to leave. Sometimes we are followed by unmarked cars and threatened by local thugs. More often, the intimidation is focused on our sources, who are prevented from speaking out by force if necessary, like Liu Xia, the wife of jailed Nobel Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, who has been held under house arrest for two years, with her phone line and computer access cut off entirely.

This means the balance between journalistic openness and self-censoring to protect our sources is a difficult one to strike. Generally I try to be as cautious as possible. I will agree not to use people's names, and occasionally I'll even disguise their voices, in order to protect them. During a trip to Tibetan areas with another journalist in February, it quickly became clear that our very presence was putting people in danger. One monk warned us, "If we talk to you, they'll arrest us." Another man also said, "You speaking with the monks makes them truly scared. They could get shot." After hearing this, we left that town immediately. Broadcasting these interviews did pose a risk to the Tibetans we talked to, but we also felt that what they had said – and their level of fear – was so telling that it needed to be reported. In this instance, we were careful to remove the names of our interviewees, as well as any indication of their whereabouts.

When I recently visited Liangjiahe village, where China's new Communist party chief Xi Jinping spent seven years living in a cave, the situation was very different. No police cars were stationed in the village and nobody specifically told us not to talk to the villagers. Most people were very tight-lipped, leading us to believe they may have been warned off speaking to the press, but we were only able to verify that fact later.

When we approached 84-year old Xue Yubin, he was happy to talk to us. As he was almost entirely deaf, we wrote questions on a piece of paper, which he then answered out loud. He seemed keen to reminisce about his chats with the young Xi Jinping, and how he had delivered messages to Xi's father's army unit. Their relationship had clearly been close, since Xi left a gift of money for Xue Yubin, when he revisited the village in 1992. Xue Yubin was extremely complimentary about Xi, so I judged that using this interview should not put him at risk. His past as a revolutionary, who joined the Communist army in 1947 and receives honorary visits from local officials, offers him some degree of protection, while his deafness gives him cover to argue that he didn't know he wasn't supposed to talk to reporters.

It is an unfortunate fact, however, that there is often some degree of risk involved in talking to foreign reporters in China. But I feel strongly that most interviewees realize this, and if they make that decision to talk to us, we owe it to them to report their words accurately and fairly.

Intern Laura Schwartz contributed to this report.

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