For Helene Chung, a former ABC China correspondent who covered the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, the forced departure of two Australian journalists this week marked a significant step backwards on the progress made by foreign media in recent decades.
- The ABC was one of the first foreign media outlets to open a bureau in Beijing in 1973
- The bureau opened two years after Beijing and Canberra established diplomatic ties
- The broadcaster has since appointed more than two dozen China correspondents
The 75-year-old fourth-generation Chinese-Australian was posted to the Peking bureau — now known as the Beijing bureau — in the summer of 1983.
Ms Chung said back then, reporting in China was very different because correspondents had to be accompanied by assigned staff from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and were constantly monitored.
She also had to apply for a permit to speak to locals.
“They might be monitored when I went to their place … I could get them into trouble.
“Sometimes we would meet these people … making a lot of money and we were not sure … whether they were genuine people who welcomed us, or whether they were just setup by the officials.”
Ms Chung, who is also the Australian broadcaster’s first female foreign correspondent, told numerous stories on the ground for three years, between the post-Mao era and the start of China’s ambitious opening up and economic reform.
She returned to Australia in 1986 and was again sent to Beijing to cover the pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Weeks before the massacre, she was flown to Hong Kong to report from a safer distance.
Ms Chung also broke new ground by being the first China correspondent of Chinese background. However, at an official level, she was treated as a foreigner in China who represented a foreign organisation.
She remembers being housed with Australian diplomatic staff in a compound with armed guards standing by the gates.
The guards were ostensibly there to look after the residents, but everyone knew they were there to ‘protect’ the Chinese interpreters and other local workers from “Western pollution”, including free speech, freedom of assembly, and perhaps pornography.
‘A peculiar variety of Western spy’
The ABC was one of the first foreign media outlets to open its bureau in central Beijing in 1973, about two years after Beijing and Canberra established formal diplomatic ties under Gough Whitlam government.
Paul Raffaele was appointed as the ABC’s first China correspondent and said correspondents had been seen as “a peculiar variety of Western spy”.
“Our phones were bugged, we were watched almost everywhere we went, and our reports were scrutinised word for word,” Mr Raffaele said.
While the technology has improved and correspondents can interview locals without being accompanied by ministry staff, journalists today face a different type of challenge.
Ms Chung said during her three years’ positing, there were officially four correspondents who were expelled because “they got too close to the Chinese”, including some just for being able to communicate in Chinese.
She said there were also technological challenges such as a choppy telephone connection, which made reading a simple 30-second news report over the phone to be recorded in the ABC Sydney studios a challenge in itself.
While the technology has improved and they can interview locals without being accompanied by ministry staff, journalists today face a different type of challenge.
‘The communist dynasty’
This week, Bill Birtles, the ABC’s correspondent based in Beijing, and the Australian Financial Review’s Mike Smith, based in Shanghai, fled the country after the pair were questioned separately by China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS).
They are the latest foreign journalists forced to leave China alongside at least 19 others this year, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The journalists’ departure also comes amid escalating tensions between China and Australia, partially fuelled by increased scrutiny of foreign media in both countries.
Last month, Chinese authorities also detained Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who worked for Chinese state-owned television China Global Television Network (CGTN), and later accused her of “criminal activity endangering China’s national security”.
Ms Chung said it was a “terrible situation” and believed the country was “tightening” its control on media after a period of “loosening” before President Xi Jinping came into power in 2013.
“I think it’s very hard for correspondents now that Xi Jinping is imposing such tight censorship, on the local press as well,” she said.
“I was there living there in the Deng Xiaoping era. We believed things were looking up because the mid-80s was a period of urban modernisation when people were learning to have to live with the big part of socialist egalitarianism being smashed.
“We hoped that with the economic liberalisation, there would be some political liberalisation.
“But we know now, that it is not necessarily so [because] China is following its own way.
“But Xi Jinping is a particularly powerful man, more powerful perhaps even than [Chairman] Mao. He’s got his finger in absolutely every pie, but he’s aided today by all the technology.”
‘A great conundrum of China’
Over the past 50 years, the ABC has appointed more than two dozen China correspondents, including TV presenter Jane Hutcheon in 1996, Eric Campbell in 2001 and most recently Birtles in 2015.
While each of them faced their own set of challenges, Birtle’s forced departure from China is unprecedented, leaving no accredited Australian media journalists in China since the mid-1970s.
Despite the latest developments, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson insisted China’s policy of opening up “hasn’t changed and will not change”.
“China always welcomes foreign journalists … protects the legitimate rights and interests of news reporters and editors in accordance with the law,” Lijian Zhao said earlier this week.
“As long as foreign journalists abide by the law and report according to regulations, there is no need for them to have any worries.”
Mr Campbell, who joined the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program after working in more than 100 countries, said Mr Zhao’s comments was “a great conundrum of China”.
“When you look at it, what we regard in the West as journalism was illegal to the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr Campbell said.
“If we are doing critical reports, by definition, we are damaging the reputation of China … Therefore, what we’re doing is illegal.
“And it was never really that clear what the law was anyway, because it’s up to what a policeman or Public Security Bureau official thinks.”
‘Having people on the ground is crucial’
While Birtles will have to report on China from Australian soil, ABC News director Gaven Morris told ABC TV earlier this week the organisation would seek to return to China when it was safe for journalists to work there.
The ABC’s latest-appointed China Bureau Chief Sarah Ferguson is also still waiting for her visa to work in China, more than 18 months after the announcement.
“China, understanding China, the relationship between our two countries is probably the biggest story of our time,” Mr Morris said.
Like Mr Morris, Ms Chung also hoped for a return of Australian correspondents to China.
“I hope that there will soon be ABC and other Australian correspondents representing the major media organisations back in China,” she said.
Ms Chung added while she was fascinated by China as “a wonderful country”, she was also concerned about the country’s human rights issues, after coming back from China’s Xinjiang autonomous region last year.
“I was really very sad there that the places in Kashgar did not reflect the Uyghur culture, that so many people were just obliged to say nice things, but they were not really able to speak about … the loss of their culture,” she said.
“China is too important a story to ignore.
“This is a difficulty, but there have been difficulties over the years, and this one will [also] be overcome.”
The ABC has contacted the Chinese Foreign Ministry for comments.