Throughout her career reporting on China, first for the Financial Times and, since 2019, for NPR, Beijing correspondent Emily Feng has had the opportunity to cover a broad range of topics. She unveiled the torment Uyghur children endured after being forcibly separated from their parents; exposed the Chinese government's efforts to mute opposition from the diaspora; and recounted how snail noodles had gone viral in China during the pandemic — a seemingly delightful human tale that generated a vitriolic backlash. This kind of reporting on and from China may no longer be possible for the next generation of foreign correspondents, says Feng, winner of the 2022 Shorenstein Journalism Award.
In her keynote address at the award ceremony, she discussed the increasingly dangerous environment for foreign correspondents in China and the challenges hindering access to information: journalists expelled, local staff harassed, sources threatened, reporting trips heavily surveilled, and a country locked down by COVID controls. Feng managed to dodge expulsions, government audits, and other interference in her reporting, but she, too, is now out of China and uncertain if she would be allowed to re-enter and continue her work from inside the country. She shared her reflections on the costs of China’s information vacuum and where China reporting is headed:
Feng is recognized by the Shorenstein Journalism Award for her stellar reporting on China under strenuous conditions. She was joined by two other China experts on a panel about the future of China reporting: Stanford’s Jennifer Pan, a professor of communication and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Affairs (FSI), whose research focuses on political communication and authoritarian politics, and Louisa Lim, an award-winning journalist who reported from China for a decade for NPR and the BBC, and who also serves on the selection committee for the Shorenstein Journalism Award. FSI Senior Fellow Andrew Walder, the Denise O'Leary and Kent Thiry Professor at Stanford, chaired the discussion.
The Appearance of Foreign Media Coverage
As China has grown into a geopolitical superpower, understanding Beijing’s decision-making is more crucial than ever. Yet under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the number of foreign correspondents on the ground has atrophied, digital surveillance has intensified, and online censorship of sources has tightened. Being tailed constantly during reporting trips is now the norm, says Feng, and many sources are running dry, no longer willing to talk to reporters. “This kind of digital surveillance not only stymies public discourse and civil society in China but also inhibits our understanding of the country,” Feng notes.
More worrisome still is the rise of harassment, in person and online, of foreign correspondents and the portrayal of their work as intelligence gathering for foreign governments. Feng described how Chinese state media outlets, local government officials, and security personnel have been gradually laying the ground to cast foreign reporters as agents of foreign influence — accusations that carry physical danger and legal costs for reporters. “That kind of language is particularly tough on ethnic Chinese reporters like me,” says Feng, who has personally confronted race-based harassment and xenophobic nationalism. A year ago, for example, she discovered she had been unknowingly subject to a national security investigation related to a story she had done half a year earlier.
In addition to whittling down the number of foreign correspondents on the ground and increasing the pressure on those who remain in the country, China’s COVID restrictions have been detrimental to press freedom. The foundations of journalistic work — talking to people, fact-checking, traveling to gather information — have become nearly impossible.
These increasingly challenging conditions have forced Feng and other China reporters to sacrifice the kind of stories they tell about the country, often filing dry reports that diminish global interest in China. “The result,” says Feng, “is a growing opacity, and opacity about a country as big as China breeds suspicion and mistrust. But it seems to be what China wants: the appearance of foreign media coverage without truly getting to the heart of what is going on in the country and without access to the people making the stories happen.”
A Vehicle for the CCP
In her remarks, Professor Pan described China’s changing media landscape and the rise of digital repression. Fundamentally, she explains, media in all its forms in China is a vehicle for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to preserve its staying power. But while the Chinese government has always worked hard to control the domestic information environment, it is now increasingly limiting what the world can know about the country. “The Chinese government thinks it can tell the China story better.”
Altogether, Pan notes, these recent trends — the rise of digital censorship in all its forms, the government’s ability to influence the production and consumption of information, cyber harassment, and undermining of journalists and their work — indicate that the Chinese government has many levers at its disposal to constrain not only the activity of journalists but also limit their reach and influence.
It remains to be seen, however, whether all these efforts will produce the outcomes the Chinese regime wants. Clearly, by eliminating access to foreign correspondents, the world will know less about China, Pan says. “It’s less clear whether this will be advantageous in the long term for the CCP.”
Reshaping the World’s Media
What is filling China’s information vacuum? Since she left the country after reporting from China for a decade for the BBC and NPR, Lim has been interested in this question, or what she calls “the other side of the campaign to marginalize foreign journalists and to cut down on the coverage from China.”
Jointly with the International Federation of Journalists, Lim has examined how China is trying to shape a singular story from its perspective by bypassing resident correspondents who speak Chinese, study China, and are savvy about Chinese history, culture, and politics. Her investigations reveal that the Chinese government targets journalists — particularly local journalists from countries in China’s periphery, like Pakistan or Bangladesh — offering them paid tours in China and other enticements in exchange for pro-China reports that it then features in state media. For example, in these pro-China reports, the political indoctrination camps in Xinjiang are portrayed as vocational training camps designed to combat extremism.
“You can see how foreign journalists are being used to legitimize and validate China’s tactics,” says Lim. “That’s why it’s so important that we have sources on the ground telling other stories, but also why that work has become harder. It speaks to the importance of the media and of what China calls ‘discourse power,’ how important it is to China to tell the China story in a particular way.”
Reconfiguring Our Knowledge of China
What is the future of China reporting? There has been a noticeable shift to remote reporting, Feng explains: not only in the sense of reporting on China outside of the country but also in relying on different sources of information. “Traditionally, in journalism, we travel and meet people, but I find more and more that reporting relies on data. The advantage is obvious: you might be blocked from accessing a detention center in Xinjiang, but it’s hard to block satellite images of these camps. This opens up a whole new area of China reporting that relies on data journalism.”
Another development, notes Feng, is the emerging beat of “China and the rest of the world.” Foreign correspondents now increasingly report from outside of China on the perceptions of China around the world and tell stories about how China influences all manners of countries and sectors. However, there are costs to this process of reconfiguring our knowledge of China without being in the country, Feng says. “The cultural context and the human reporting are lost, and it is that kind of in-country reporting that helped us make sense of the facts and figures that come out of this massive country.”
Feng, therefore, worries about the future of China reporting. “I don’t worry that China is about to take over the world or invade Taiwan, but I do worry that in the off-chance that this does happen, we won't have enough correspondents on the ground to make sense of that.”
She also cautions that there is no next generation of China correspondents building experience to replace those who are leaving the country and to take up reporting when she and others move on. “There are no new young academics or journalists who want to come to the country, and those who want to are unable to do so. In this vacuum of explanatory, investigative, or simply empathetic reporting on the country, I fear we begin to accelerate toward more misunderstanding, mistrust, and perhaps even conflict.”
“I look forward to returning to China and reporting again if I can, but I hope other people take up the mantle soon,” she concluded.