China

Information, tips and advice for journalists travelling to China for work.

Media environment

In late 2006, there was a major breakthrough for foreign journalists in China with the introduction of new laws allowing greater freedoms during the period around the 2008 Olympic Games. The regulations allowed foreign journalists to travel and interview without prior official permission, and were seen as an effort by the government to keep a promise to the International Olympic Committee that it would allow free reporting before and during the 2008 games. The regulations were then made permanent.

Travel to Tibet, remains tightly controlled, however, and though media freedom campaigners welcome the move, they point out that the new freedoms do not apply to domestic Chinese journalists, who continue to be subjected to strong government censorship and control.

There are also concerns over the degree to which the regulations will be enforced. Despite some improvement in reporting conditions since their introduction, there have been many reports of foreign journalists being intimidated or assaulted by ‘plainclothes thugs’. The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China reported that in 2007 almost 180 foreign journalists were harassed or detained while reporting on sensitive stories.

Further counterbalancing any moves to free up China’s reporting environment in 2006 was the issuing of a law forbidding local and foreign journalists to report on disasters such as outbreaks of disease, terrorist attacks, or environmental catastrophes before official statements were issued. Additionally, in September 2006 it was announced that only the official Xinhua news agency was now authorised to distribute foreign financial information, news or photographs. The regulations ban foreign information providers from distributing news that ‘endangers China’s national security, reputation and interests’. In 2007, after a series of high profile blackmail stories involving unregistered journalists, a government crackdown netted 150 ‘fake’ reporters and 300 unregistered publications.

China also tightly controls the internet, and the ‘Great Firewall of China’ has long faced criticism for blocking access to sites the government considers sensitive. These include BBC News, Voice of America, Reporters without Borders, Radio Free Asia, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Olympic Watch, Wikipedia and numerous sites advocating independence for Tibet and Taiwan. Popular blogsite host Blogspot and some photo-sharing websites such as Flickr.com are also periodically blocked. The government banned any new internet bars opening in 2007, citing concerns about internet-addicted youngsters. In early 2008, the government said it was debating whether to relax control of the internet during the Olympics, allowing access to banned websites such as BBC News.

The China Daily is the only national English-language daily, and has an extensive website. There's also the People’s Daily and China’s main news agency, Xinhua, has Xinhuanet online. Weekly news magazine the Beijing Review has been around since 1958 (indeed, former China president Zhou Enlai once worked on it). Monthly magazines Time Out, That’s Beijing and City Weekend magazines are the most widely distributed English-language magazines in Beijing. They can be picked up free of charge in many bars and cafes.

China Central Television International (CCTV-9) is the English-language 24-hour news channel of China Central Television, the country's largest national television network. It reports on local and global news. Visit the website for more details about other English-language programming on CCTV. Cable stations such as CNN are available in the main cities.

China Radio International is the state-funded radio network broadcasting worldwide in numerous languages. It can be found on 1251AM and 91.50FM in Beijing.

Mainstream international news magazines and the English-language Hong Kong papers and cable television are also available in international hotels and some large bookstores. In Beijing, these include the Friendship Store in Guomao, the Wangfujing Foreign Languages Bookstore and the Bookworm in Sanlitun.

News gathering

The main local employer of foreign journalists is the state-run media: Xinhua news agency (copy editors), China Daily newspaper (writers and editors), China Radio International (newscasters, copy editors and show hosts), and CCTV (copy editors and presenters). Expat magazines Time Out, That’s Beijing, City Weekend and Talk Beijing also hire editors and journalists.

Wages and conditions vary considerably. State-run media usually offer accommodation, air tickets from a journalist’s home country and health insurance. If you are interested in working in China and don’t have the money and energy to survive in the visa limbo of freelancing, state-run media are an easy, if dull, option. They regularly hire foreigners based on phone interviews and emailed editing tests. They arrange work visas and generally help with getting organised. Regulations on working for other media on the side vary between employers. Generally speaking, a blind eye is turned to any moonlighting except in the case of heavy government criticism or negative reporting on sensitive issues.

For foreign correspondents, the rule most journalists observe is: stay ahead of the posse. Get in quick, do the interviews, and get out. If you do happen to write something that upsets the authorities, you are more likely nowadays to be told off than expelled from the country. Foreign correspondents who displease government officials are called in to the Foreign Ministry and given a dressing down. In addition, major television stations such as CNN have discovered that while their reporters are not prevented from doing stories, sometimes a broadcast will simply go off-air in China for the duration of what might be considered a ‘sensitive’ report. Bear in mind that if punishment is meted out it tends to fall on locals employed as assistants or interpreters. They can be, and periodically are, arrested and given the third degree.

The most sensitive subjects are coverage of the suppression of Falun Gong (which can cause complaints if the story is seen as too sympathetic) and criticism of China’s policy on Taiwan and Muslim separatists in the far western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Protests and demonstrations against corrupt officials and cheating developers are increasingly common. These often large and violent occurrences are referred to by the government as "mass incidents" and amateur footage is frequently posted on internet file sharing sites. Such incidents never appear on news bulletins and foreign reporters attempting to cover them invariably have difficulty.

Correspondents say there is now an immense flow of information about most aspects of China coming from domestic media, academics and foreign media. Internal travel is now easy and inexpensive.

Another note of caution: as China has opened up scores of keen young journalists have flooded cities on spec, looking to make a name for themselves in the world’s fastest -developing country. Unless you speak Mandarin Chinese, competing is an uphill task. Mandarin is the key to making yourself useful, either as a local hire with foreign news bureaux or with the welter of city guide-type magazines. The pickings may be lean to start with, but living Chinese-style is cheap and the China story is of growing interest to overseas editors. Remember, too, that you will not be able to access government officials for interviews or attend press conferences without accreditation.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club is extremely helpful to journalists working in Beijing for the first time. It organises useful briefings and pool reports, and goes in to bat for journalists with problems. In addition, the International Press Centre, run by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has a guidebook on rules for foreign journalists, and a directory of foreign news bureaux in China. English language media have mushroomed in China’s main cities in recent years, with new newspapers, magazines, websites and television channels.

Visas

There are several types of visa for foreigners wanting to stay in China longer than the standard three-month tourist L-Visa allows. If you are hired by any of the state-run media you will normally be issued with a one year Z-Visa. It is also quite common for foreigners to arrive in China on student, business or tourist visas before being hired locally. Employers will usually arrange appropriate visas for full-time employees. Many companies (legitimate and not) offer help with securing visas in China, but their services are not cheap. One of the most popular companies is Traders Link.

Note that foreigners intending to live in China should take their passport, a passport-sized photograph and current address details to register at the nearest Public Security Bureau within 24 hours of arrival. In reality, many foreigners who live in China do not do so, and it is unlikely that you will ever be asked to produce your passport in a random check. However, passports are required as identification to check in to hotels, board domestic flights and use public internet bars.

There are two types of visa for journalists:

  • J-1 Visa: are for accredited foreign correspondents resident in China.
  • J-2 Visa: are for foreign correspondents on short-term assignments.

Other types of visa include:

  • Z-Visa: for long-term employment in China. Valid for a maximum of one year and renewable.
  • L-Visa: tourist visa valid for up to three months, and extendable to six months.
  • F-Visa: usually referred to as a business visa, this covers people on business, scientific, technological and cultural exchanges, short-term advanced studies or internships. Valid for a maximum of six months.
  • X-Visa: For full-time students in the country for six months or more.

Contact the Chinese Embassy in New Zealand for more information.

Practical tips

  • The official language is Mandarin, with Cantonese spoken in the south. Many government ministries will provide translators to accredited foreign journalists at no cost, but check ahead. It is also easy to find English language university students in major cities who will act as paid translators. However, if you have no understanding of Chinese, you may prefer to use someone recommended by other foreigners. www.thatsbj.com usually carries numerous ads by young Chinese with good English skills looking for work. You should try to learn some basic Chinese phrases before you go. Private teachers and language schools abound in China. www.chinesepod.com is a popular web-based language learning system.

  • All of China, including Hong Kong, operates in a single time zone (GMT+8). There is no summer time adjustment. Chinese mainland SIM cards for unlocked international mobile phones are widely available — look out for China Mobile booths at international airports. After buying a Chinese phone number, free credit can be topped up with charge cards available at newsstands.

  • If you are hired in China, be sure that your employer provides health cover, otherwise you may face enormous queues and a language barrier at a public hospital. There are no GPs, you must go to a hospital. For minor ailments, pharmacies sell a wide range of Chinese traditional medicine and western-style drugs, including some — such as antibiotics and the contraceptive pill — that require a prescription in most western countries. Prices are low, though drugs are not usually recognisable brands and carry no information in English.

  • If you are planning to live in Beijing, the classifieds and forum on That’s Beijing  are good sources of information about finding an apartment and settling in. Some agents may try to take advantage, so if possible, negotiate apartment rental with the help of a Chinese friend or co-worker, or use an agent who has been recommended to you.

Contributor: Teri Fitsell | Updated by Emma Moore

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Article uploaded 2008.

Last updated: 29 May 2013