Media Freedoms Report 2022: ‘Zero Covid, Many Controls: Covering China in 2022’

Mar 1, 2023


March 1, 2023 – The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China’s latest working condition report summarizes yet another tough and draining year in 2022. Heightened Covid controls throughout the year strangled the remaining coverage plans of many bureaus, which were already battered in morale and greatly diminished in numbers by successive expulsions and delays in granting new visas to incoming journalists. 

·       46% were told to leave a place or denied access for health and safety reasons when they presented no health risk by China’s own standards.

·       47% said they were unable to travel at some point because of issues with their health code, a government-run system which controlled people’s movements based on supposed infection risk

·       38% of respondents said at least one of their sources had been harassed, detained, called in for questioning by the authorities, or otherwise suffered negative consequences for interacting with foreign journalists, up from only a quarter last year.

·       45% of respondents said their Chinese colleague(s) were pressured, harassed, or intimidated at least once in 2022, up from 40% last year.

Covid controls have been lifted, but a bevy of state restrictions, ongoing digital surveillance, and the continued harassment of Chinese colleagues and sources means existing challenges to true freedom of the press in China remain. Of the respondents to our survey, 100% said China did not meet international standards for press freedoms and reporting last year. 

·      56% of respondents said they were obstructed at least once by police or other officials during 2022 (compared to 62% the previous year).

·      31% of respondents report instances of trips or interviews being canceled because of official pressure.

While bureaus are hopeful China’s newly-opened borders may mean more visa approvals, most outlets say they are still waiting on entry permits and work accreditation for new reporters to boost headcounts that flagged dramatically during the global pandemic, cutting into outlets’ capacity to cover one of the most populous nations on the planet. Select Japanese and European outlets have had success bringing in new reporters but fear geopolitical tensions could upset their access to visas at any moment.

·       56% of bureaus which were waiting on new J-1 visas for correspondents last year said they had not yet received them.

·       Of those who had not received a visa, 60% said they were told geopolitical tensions were to blame for the delay.

In 2023, the outlook for visas still seems grim. U.S.-China negotiations over new visas for reporters working for American outlets have stalled. In at least one instance, an American reporter with a valid visa and press card had their residence permit revoked and was barred from re-entering China after they left the country for a routine trip. They were eventually forced to relocate elsewhere after months of failed negotiations. Such geopolitical targeting and uncertainties over visas complicate the ability of journalists to report on a complex country that is already a difficult cover.

The delays in granting visas and other obstacles in reporting stretched thin outlets’ ability to cover a series of groundbreaking events in China in 2022. In February, Beijing hosted the Winter Olympic Games. October saw the all-important Communist Party Congress, then in November, peaceful demonstrations rolled out across the country against China’s so-called “zero-Covid” policies. Within weeks, those policies were abruptly overturned and China quickly saw a massive surge in coronavirus infections.

Harassment of foreign journalists by officials and the security services also peaked during these news making moments in the 2022, including the Winter Olympics in February and a historic Communist Party Congress in October.

·      36% of respondents who covered the Party Congress said they weren’t granted access to any of the events they applied for.

China continues to be one of the most important stories of our time, yet since the start of the global pandemic in 2020, press freedoms across the country have declined at an accelerated pace, and it remains to be seen if they will recover.  Foreign correspondents on the ground traveled less and were able to cover far less in depth in 2022, largely because Covid restrictions.

This year looks to be different, but press working conditions in China have significant room for improvement if journalists are to be able to tell the China story well, as the government claims to desire. 

The survey based on a survey of journalists who belong to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. Conducted in December 2022 and January 2023, 102 of 166 correspondent members, representing news organizations from 30 countries and regions, responded to the survey. More than one in 10 respondents were based outside of mainland China because they were unable to receive accreditation to report there – a reflection of how journalism about China is increasingly becoming remote.