Behind the scenes in one of the world’s least press-friendly countries.
In international journalism, a local journalist hired by foreign reporters for his or her special knowledge of the local area, culture, and language is called a fixer. The relatively unsung nature of the fixer’s work belies its difficulty and its importance. Fixers are crucial in helping foreign journalists navigate unfamiliar places and situations, secure interviews, and stay out of harm’s way. This series explores the complexities and challenges of this role.
China ranks 176th on Reporters without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index, ahead of only Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea. Government officials closely monitor everything that domestic and foreign news outlets alike publish about China.
Under President Xi Jinping’s administration, this censorship has only “gotten worse, and intentionally gotten worse,” according to Bob Dietz, the Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. A communiqué circulated among senior party leaders in 2013, not long after Xi took office, denounced foreign journalists and free speech defenders who “promote the West’s idea of journalism and undermine our country’s principle that the media should be infused with the spirit of the Party,” advocating instead an “unwavering adherence to the principle of the Party’s control of media.”
It’s no surprise that China is tough on foreign reporters. But local journalists, even those who toe the line, are also regularly subject to surveillance, intimidation, physical violence, and imprisonment, and lack their foreign counterparts’ freedom to leave China.
In this repressive environment, the role of the fixer is a precise and peculiar one: caught between foreign and local journalism, unable to fully participate in either but often subject to repercussions for both. Roads & Kingdoms recently spoke with Christine Wei, a news assistant at a foreign news agency in Beijing who has worked as a fixer for international journalists.
R&K: How did you begin your career in journalism?
Christine Wei: I have engaged in this field from 2008, when Beijing held the Olympics, because tons of foreign journalists came to China. From 2008 to 2011, I worked as a fixer, or freelancer, for foreign journalists [as well as] AFP, a French news agency, at their Beijing bureau. I just finished my job with AFP last month and currently I work as a producer at a British newspaper in Beijing.
R&K: Have you experienced challenges working with foreign journalists in the past?
Wei: Yes, definitely. You know, China’s censorship is very strict. There are a lot of topics we are not allowed to work on, like human rights stories, or topics concerning state leaders. Currently, pollution stories. I’m remembering last year, I worked with a German radio reporter based in China in Beijing, and we went to Tangshan to the steel plant. The smoke being emitted from the plant seriously polluted local air and was causing cancer in the village. We went there, but we were stopped. When we got there some police officers spotted us and we were chased by several police. It’s actually very dangerous.
Even with work at a permanent news agency in China, we still have to be cautious, because the local government will sometimes warn us. Sometimes they’ll call us and say: you can come out and we’ll have tea and let’s talk about your work, with your boss. Just warning us, you know, that there’s a boundary. Because I’m a Chinese national, I’m not allowed to [cross] that boundary.
R&K: So when they invite you for tea, is that a friendly gesture that’s actually disguising a more menacing implication?
Wei: Yeah, they always tell us: you are a Chinese national, this is your home. Foreign journalists, they can leave any time they want, but you cannot: you have family here, you have parents here, a husband, kids. If you are making something that’s really crossing a line, we can just put you in prison. They’ve actually done that.
A fixer in China has no protection
R&K: Have you personally experienced repercussions for your work as either a journalist or fixer, beyond these veiled threats?
Wei: In the first few years when I worked for AFP, I was invited to tea several times, but they were friendly, because I’ve never done something wrong; it was just that I’m a journalist. But to be a fixer in China—a fixer has no protection. A permanent employee has the support of foreign media—they have the Assistant Card. The Assistant Card is issued by the Chinese foreign ministry, and if someone harasses us or stops us, we can show them the card. The card can protect us. But the fixer has no bureau, and no foreign media can protect them. No media can afford to sponsor an Assistant Card for a fixer. So being a fixer is more dangerous than being a permanent employee.
R&K: Do you have friends who’ve been treated poorly or penalized for working as fixers?
Wei: Fixers know their situation, so if the topic is too sensitive they can choose not to do it. So, generally speaking, of all the people I know, I don’t know anyone who has been put in danger for helping journalists without a card. You know, people are smart, and if it’s too dangerous they won’t try it.
R&K: I’ve heard some Chinese journalists self-censor. Do you think foreign journalists are also inclined to do so?
Wei: I don’t think some foreign journalists understand China very clearly. I work as a freelancer for two foreign journalists, and we went to Guangxi for the dog meat festival. It’s very dangerous there for journalists. For example, there was a huge market, and you can find all the meat and the livestock in the market, and if you can enter the market you can even see the live dogs being slaughtered. But we’re not allowed to get in, because they know that foreign people will be filming, and that this film will be broadcast in foreign countries, which will cut their profits. But with the two journalists I followed, they don’t understand China, and they thought: ‘Well, we’ll try it, we can do whatever in China that we do in our country. We’re reporters, we have every right to report on it.’ But this is China—if local people don’t want you to do it, if they really don’t want you to enter the market, you cannot enter the market—otherwise they’ll probably attack you, hurt you.
R&K: How is China’s online scene changing people’s desire for, and access to, information?
Wei: In China, generally speaking, it’s not allowed. I use tors to climb the walls [the “Great Firewall of China”] so I can use Google. With Google, you can find a lot of news and information which you cannot find on Baidu… Baidu is our own search engine. If you want to do some research, you can’t use Baidu. Common people like my parents just watch TV and read our newspapers, so they don’t know the truth. The truth of a lot of things is unknown to the Chinese people, especially people over 45 years old. But, young people, in their 30s or 25, some age like that—I think more and more Chinese people want to know the truth. And more and more people know how to climb the walls: to learn the truth, to learn the secrets hidden behind the incidents.
R&K: Why do you think this is changing—do you think this is mainly because of the internet?
Wei: Definitely the internet. Do you know Weibo in China? The Chinese equivalent of Twitter. If things happen, you can find a lot of information about the incidents if you can do a search quickly enough. If you’re slow, then probably after a half-day everything will be deleted from the internet. But if you’re quick enough, you’ll still have time to find something. The internet has played a vital role in helping young people to know what’s going on in the world.
Also, because China is getting richer and richer, more and more young people are going abroad, studying abroad, so they can use English. If they can read English, they can read foreign reporting, and foreign reporting can tell them everything, right?
R&K: So people access foreign newspapers and foreign websites?
Wei: Foreign websites are actually much more interesting than Chinese media. China is much better than North Korea, but still, from CCTV News [the English-language, state-run news channel], all you can learn is how good the country is. But actually this country is not that good—I don’t mean the country is not good at all, but for some points the country is not very good, so from foreign media people can learn the truth. I think this is why so many young people are human rights lawyers and want to protest. Probably they want a better tomorrow for their kids.
The Chinese government will never allow social unrest in this country
R&K: And you see the path toward a better tomorrow as having a freer press?
Wei: First of all, I want to clarify: I love my country. Not just because I am a Chinese person: I love my country because China is actually trying its best to make progress, and to earn a better future for its people. It’s really trying, but because China has such a huge population, and so many problems, it needs a really long time to fix the problems and [create] a better future for its people. But China is trying. So I am proud to be a Chinese person. Secondly, I don’t fear for China’s future—the Chinese government will never allow social unrest in this country, so no matter what, stability is always a priority for the Chinese people.
Also, China has developed very fast, especially the economy, and the Chinese people are rich—well, richer than our parents. You know, I once had a conversation with my parents, who are in their 60s, and I said: “Dad, you know China doesn’t have much human rights, we are ruled by the Party, and we will do whatever the Party tells us to do. What do you think about this?” And my father told me: ‘Well, honestly speaking, I really don’t care. Why don’t I care? In the past, we didn’t have food, we didn’t have money. And right now we have food, we have money, we’re in our apartments. No one can invade us like before.’ Compared to the past, they feel happy enough.
R&K: Do you have anything else to say about your time as a fixer, or journalism in China in general?
Wei: I think my job is actually equal to journalism: we do interviews, we talk to people, we translate our stuff and we find story ideas for the journalists, we attend conferences and we transcribe audio for the journalists. I think the only problem for me is that I’m not allowed to work as a foreign journalist, because Chinese people can only help work with journalists—they’re not allowed to write anything.
R&K: So you do the reporting and he or she writes the articles?
Wei: Yeah, I can actually write part of the articles, but I can’t use my name—I never get to use my name.
R&K: That must be frustrating.
Wei: Yeah, definitely, a little bit frustrating. But it has actually helped protect me, because if I have reported anything too sensitive, it will bring me trouble. But it’s definitely frustrating.
Cover illustration by Paweł Jońca