China's State Media Tries To Convey Foreign Media Can't Be Trusted How has reporting in China changed over the two decades? As people have become more open and sophisticated, the government has become more repressive.

China's State Media Tries To Convey Foreign Media Can't Be Trusted

China's State Media Tries To Convey Foreign Media Can't Be Trusted

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How has reporting in China changed over the two decades? As people have become more open and sophisticated, the government has become more repressive.


Our colleague NPR's Frank Langfitt is finishing up five years reporting in China. Before he heads to his new post, London, we wanted to chat with him about how reporting in an authoritarian country has changed over the years. And we've reached Frank on the line in Shanghai. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, David.

GREENE: So I'm trying to get my dates right. When I joined The Baltimore Sun in the late 1990s, you also were at The Baltimore Sun. And you were in China at that point.

LANGFITT: I was. I was in Beijing.

GREENE: So what was Beijing - what was China like back then?

LANGFITT: Very, very different - it was much more closed. And there was a regulation that you actually technically couldn't travel much beyond a place like Beijing without official approval. They were never going to give you official approval. So basically, you were - almost all of your reporting trips were technically illegal. So you had to sneak about a lot. And I used to have a system where I would check into hotel rooms late at night and then leave early in the morning before the cops actually knew that I'd been there.

GREENE: And what if the cops caught you? What would happen?

LANGFITT: Well, I'd get detained for questioning. And what they would do is they have this situation where the cops invite you - they give you some tea. And then they try to force you to give up sources, basically. It's kind of a light interrogation.

GREENE: My goodness, you just had to get used to that, I mean, and always risk being stopped in situations like that.

LANGFITT: Yeah, it was a little - it was more of a cat-and-mouse game, definitely.

GREENE: Well, fast forward to today, 2016. I mean, is some of that still there? Have a lot of things changed?

LANGFITT: You know, it's really interesting, David. It's like everything in China. It's easier, and it's harder. So here's the easier part is you can now report legally in most of the country. People are a lot more sophisticated, better traveled now and better informed. So the interviews are a lot better and more interesting. The harder part is - I think the government realizes that it's been losing control of the narrative. And that narrative is the Communist Party represents the people, is responsible for all the prosperity in the country and that democracy here would be a disaster.

That's one reason why they've been blocking so many foreign websites like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. And what it does, to some degree, is tries to convince ordinary people that the foreign press can't be trusted and should be feared, basically. And state media will often talk about how the foreign press is hyping a China story, always focusing on the negative. So just last month - here's a pretty good example of what's going on here - there was this press conference in Canada. And Wang Yi - he's the foreign minister - he berated this Canadian reporter who was asking a question on human rights. Here's the response in translation.


WANG YI: (Through interpreter) I have to say that your question is full of prejudice against China and arrogance where I don't know where that come from. And this is totally unacceptable. I have to ask whether you understand China. Have you been to China?

GREENE: So wow. I mean, the foreign minister berating a Canadian reporter in Canada - I mean, was this to intimidate the Canadian press? Was it sort of playing to the audience back in China or what?

LANGFITT: I think it was a bunch of things. One thing is it's basically saying this line of questioning isn't legitimate. Then, in terms of people back home, it's basically defending the honor of the country and also trying to de-legitimize the foreign media.

GREENE: Is this strategy effective if the Chinese government is trying to basically control the message?

LANGFITT: It can be quite effective. And even when you're reporting on the suffering of Chinese people, they will be suspicious and think that, you know, maybe the real purpose is actually just to keep China down.

I'll give you an example. A few years back, I went up to northeastern China. There was a bridge collapse. And I'd covered this before. It's the same old story. There's substandard material. In this case, three people were killed. And I was interviewing a local guy as to why it happened. And he said, you know, it's state corruption. This happens all the time - and a very, very common story. Well, I was doing this interview in a KFC, and his mother came along.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Yelling in foreign language).

ZHANG: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: And so what she's saying to him is - as a Chinese person, you shouldn't tell foreign reporters these bad things. And she suggested that I was just using him to blacken the Communist Party and embarrass the country.

GREENE: Wow - so, I mean, is there any understanding at all that you're just trying to do basic reporting and learn the facts?

LANGFITT: Absolutely. And more and more people do understand that. You know, we're now under the worst censorship we've had in more than two decades. And more and more people, when they're having a tough time, they may look to foreign reporters to try to help them get their story out because the domestic media's not allowed to cover these issues. So I'll give you another example. And this was from last summer.

There were these big protests in the outskirts of Shanghai. There was a chemical plant. And plants like this had actually had explosions. And the local people didn't trust the government, which is pretty common here on these sorts of issues. So I was out walking with thousands of protesters. This cop stops me and tells me I can't report. So I refuse. And I say listen, I have every legal right to do this. And suddenly, I find myself surrounded by about 150 protesters. And they're videotaping me in this free press debate with a cop in the middle of the street.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: So the cop says a government official can accompany me on my interviews. I naturally - I refuse. And I say, you know, I want people to be able to speak freely to me.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Shouting in foreign language).

LANGFITT: And so then the crowd - they jumped to my defense. And people start yelling free press. And the cop eventually just leaves me alone.

GREENE: What a scene. So when this crowd comes to your defense, are you able to just - can you do your job and report freely after that?

LANGFITT: Not exactly. And here's sort of the sophistication that we see now with Chinese state security. They've got a lot smarter. So plainclothes cops, even some of them pretending to be protesters, shadowed me through the city the rest of the night. They would insert themselves into interviews. They never actually detained me because they knew it would have caused a ruckus with the protesters. But they made my work a lot harder.

GREENE: So Frank, what does this tell us about China right now? I mean, I know you've been reporting a lot on sort of the economic pressures growing on this country. Is that what this is about - I mean, a regime that's just getting more and more nervous?

LANGFITT: Yeah, absolutely. Their rule is really based primarily on this extraordinary economic growth that we've been talking about, you know, over the last 30 years. Growth has been slowing. Economic growth has been slowing. You have rising expectations, a more sophisticated people, a lot of criticism when the internet was much more open four or five years ago. The government realizes that it was losing control of the narrative. And so one thing is it sees these foreign stories that point out unfairnesses in the system as undermining that narrative and ultimately, as a threat to their rule. And that's why they're doing what they're doing.

GREENE: All right, we've been catching up with our colleague Frank Langfitt as he leaves his post in Shanghai and moves on to a new post as NPR's international correspondent based in London. Frank, thanks a lot.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David.

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