A new “golden age” of reporting on China has emerged, despite increased crackdowns on press freedom over the past two years, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Barboza.
The former New York Times correspondent in Shanghai believes increased global interest in China has forced media outlets to be more creative in how they cover the country and issues relating to it.
“This is the golden age of reporting on China, not in that it is easy for journalists … but that the story is so much more powerful, compelling and important in every way,” Barboza said, speaking at an investigative journalism conference discussion on China.
For foreign correspondents China has always been a difficult country to cover, given the strict media licence restrictions placed on journalists from abroad. But the last couple of years have been been particularly bad, with most foreign correspondents leaving mainland China over press freedom concerns.
In all, 17 mainstream media reporters left China in 2020, and many big media outlets including The New York Times have relocated their bureaus to neighbouring countries such as South Korea.
Journalists in Hong Kong nowadays are talking about how we don’t just have a red line we have a red sea.
China has dropped even further down the World Press Freedom Index to number 177 out of the 180 countries included in the ranking.
Even Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous zone – typically seen as a safe “window” into mainland China for journalists – has experienced an erosion of press freedoms following the passing of a new National Security Law in 2020.
Independent journalist Bao Choy, also appearing on the discussion panel for the Global Investigative Journalism Conference, was arrested in late-2020 shortly after the passing of the National Security Law.
Choy was detained for illegally accessing public car registration records – something which is also illegal in Australia. However, many have viewed the arrest as an attempt by Hong Kong authorities to silence her reporting which had focused on highlighting forceful police tactics against pro-democracy protesters in 2019-20.
She is now appealing her conviction from overseas and says journalists in Hong Kong are no longer sure what they can report on safely.
“Journalists in Hong Kong nowadays are talking about how we don’t just have a red line we have a red sea because you don’t know what topics you can cover or which areas would be sensitive or will be alleged as colluding with foreign powers or endangering national security,” Choy said.
Despite all this, Barboza is optimistic about the future of reporting on China. He argues that, because there has never been more global interest in China, journalists must become more inventive in their approach.
There is hope, there are many stories that can be done even though you are not in China.
For example, in August 2020, BuzzFeed News managed to pinpoint the locations of 428 possible detention centres housing ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region using Chinese mapping app Baidu Maps.
The Wall Street Journal investigative journalist Jing Yang has also managed to conduct high-profile investigations on China from abroad.
Yang spoke at the panel discussion, hosted by the Judith Neilson Institute, about her investigation into Chinese coffee company Luckin Coffee – found to have defrauded investors by fabricating sales records to the tune of over $US300 million.
Yang used Luckin’s American listing on the NASDAQ to locate investors she could approach for comment. In the end Yang was able to trace the fraudulent scheme back to the company’s controlling shareholder at the time.
She says the investigation proved to her that it was still possible to investigate China in today’s media climate.
“There is hope, there are many stories that can be done even though you are not in China,” Yang said.