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Simon Coveney’s weekend visit shows the need for Irish journalists in China

Dublin has been strengthening ties with Beijing for years – but who is getting to tell the story?

SOME TWO DAYS passed before the Department of Foreign Affairs released a statement on Simon Coveney’s bilateral meeting with his Chinese counterpart in the city of Guiyang at the weekend. 

In the interim, publicity about the outcome of Coveney’s first visit in three years came from the Chinese foreign ministry. 

This gap in reporting shows just how important it is to have Irish journalists in China, says Dr Alexander Dukalskis, assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin, adding that it ultimately has consequences in terms of how we understand China, and Sino-Irish relations.

“In the few days after Coveney went to China, you saw publicity about the visit from Chinese foreign ministry sources and Chinese government media. Of course, these sources told their preferred interpretation of the meeting, but there is a lack of coverage, at least in print, giving an independent accounting of the meetings,” said Dr Dukalskis.

“The information void created by restricting independent journalism in China is filled by Chinese government propaganda sources.”

Following Sunday’s meeting, China’s state media reported that Minister Coveney told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that Ireland is willing to deepen cooperation with China in peacekeeping, climate change, internet security, as well as aviation.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry statement made no reference to Dublin businessman Richard O’Halloran who has not been allowed to leave the country since he travelled to China in February 2019 to resolve an ongoing commercial and legal issue involving the aviation leasing firm he works for. 

Coveney was also quoted by Chinese media as having “praised China’s firm stance on multilateralism and spoke highly of China’s role as rotating president in the UN Security Council this month”.

“Ireland is an honest friend of China in the EU and is ready to be a reliable partner, Coveney assured Wang,” CGTN reported.

The Department of Foreign Affairs released a more subdued statement on Tuesday morning, outlining some talking points not mentioned by Chinese media, most notably the ongoing detention of O’Halloran in Shanghai and the desire to achieve “an early resolution of the matter”.

Coveney did interviews with some Irish media outlets this week, including The Journal, about Ireland’s role on the UN Security Council, during which he also spoke briefly about his visit to China

The Department also said Coveney outlined Ireland’s position on the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and raised concerns over the national security law in Hong Kong and its implications. 

“We agreed on many things and there are several other issues where Ireland and China do not agree. But, as we saw today, there is always room for honest and constructive engagement between us and I look forward to meeting the Minister again in Ireland when circumstances permit,” Coveney said in a statement following the meeting. 

Dublin has been strengthening ties with Beijing for years but given China’s growing global influence and the decimation of the foreign press, Irish audiences are no doubt asking: who’s telling the story? 

“China is often seen as a far-off land – poorly understood and somewhere that has little to do with our own lives,” said Yvonne Murray, who reported on China for RTÉ. “This is partly just a function of the traditional focus of foreign news being set elsewhere, but it’s compounded by the fact that there are fewer and fewer foreign correspondents on the ground in China, who are able to peer beneath the surface of Chinese politics and society and bring it home to our audiences.”

‘We are all the poorer for it’

For most of its existence, but especially since about 2009 or so, the Chinese Communist Party has been preoccupied with how it is perceived abroad, investing huge amounts of time, energy, and resources globally to influence its image, explains Dr Dukalskis.

“There are two sides to this: on the one hand, [this involves] promoting the message it wants to promote, for example through China Global Television, its main external TV station, or Xinhua, its main news agency and wire service.

“On the other hand [it involves] obstructing messages it disagrees with. You see this in the clampdown on foreign reporters, but it also happens when the government uses the threat (or actuality) of closing its consumer market to companies that it perceives to be critical of government policy.

We’ve seen lots of examples of this as well, such as the NBA, H&M, it’s a long-standing issue in Hollywood, and so on. You’ve seen this strategy with sanctioning foreign researchers recently as well. We used to think and talk a lot about China’s ‘soft power’ but not enough people realised that there is an unmistakably hard power that underpins those efforts.

Dr Dukalskis believes China’s leadership sees independent foreign reporters as an annoyance more than anything else: “In my view, the government thinks it is perfectly capable of investigating the issues it needs to investigate domestically and of telling its own story externally either through its own propaganda streams or otherwise ‘friendly’ outlets.” 

The departure of Irish journalists Yvonne Murray and Peter Goff from the People’s Republic earlier this year brought an end to Ireland’s media representation within the country. 

Murray left “in a hurry” in March alongside her husband, BBC correspondent John Sudworth, whose reporting on the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and the coronavirus pandemic attracted the attention of Chinese authorities.

Their family moved to Taiwan after a “full-on propaganda attack” and intense harassment. Former China correspondent for the Irish Times Peter Goff faced similar harassment for his reporting, as detailed here

“I think many media organisations realise that if they want China reporting, they need to invest in it and that means everything from language training – or better yet, improving diversity to attract native Chinese speakers – to bearing the costs of relocation and maintaining a presence there, including hiring local staff,” said Murray. 

And that’s before you get around to incentivising journalists to move to a country where they will likely face pressure and intimidation just for doing their job! 

carte_2021_en-page-001 Reporter Without Borders Reporter Without Borders

Reporters Without Borders recently ranked China 177th for the third year running in its worldwide press freedom ranking of 180 countries – rating higher only than the totalitarian countries of Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

“China languishes near the bottom of the Index and does not appear willing to learn the lessons of the coronavirus pandemic, whose spread was facilitated by censorship and pressure on whistle-blowers,” said the RWB index report, which evaluates changes to local conditions for journalists every year. 

“By relying on the massive use of new technology, President Xi Jinping’s regime has imposed a social model based on control of news and information and online surveillance of its citizens. China’s state and privately-owned media are under the Communist Party’s ever-tighter control, while the administration creates more and more obstacles for foreign reporters.”

Snag_17c6f3c China's press freedom ranking since 2013 RWB RWB

Likewise, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) reported that conditions for correspondents on the ground had deteriorated for the third year running. Its annual report notes that as the number of topics considered by Chinese authorities to be politically sensitive grows, so too has the surveillance on journalists and sources, both physically and electronically. 

The Chinese government denies allegations made in the FCCC report and describes the group as an “illegal organisation, which China has never acknowledged”. 

Irish journalist Mark Godfrey, who served as an FCCC board member for several years during his time reporting from China, said the refusal of Chinese authorities to give the FCCC status meant the organisation was always ‘ad-hoc’ and couldn’t have any official events. 

“We never had an official address, we always had meetings in different embassies so the Chinese authorities could interrupt any event that we had,” said Godfrey. 

“They [Chinese authorities] were certainly never going to give us status, which is why they can refer to the group as the ‘so-called foreign correspondents club’.”

Given the rise of modern China and its global implications, Godfrey says it should be a priority for Irish media to have a presence in the country but only if those journalists have the freedom to report where they want, and to do so without being harassed. 

Yvonne Murray notes that most of the big international media organisations maintain bureaus in China but even they have tiny operations when weighed against how vast China is and how important the story has become. 

“Meanwhile, Chinese state media which do not face the same financial constraints have been able to expand their overseas presence. So, it’s likely that outlets without reporters on the ground in China will increasingly rely on official Chinese state media for their coverage,” said Murray. 

“There’s so much more to China than propaganda, which is unlikely to wash with international audiences anyway.

“There are 1.4 billion people in China – there are as many human stories to be told as there are political runes to be read and it’s very hard to do any of that from a distance.

“We lose the nuance and the human connection and we are all the poorer for it.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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