OPINION: When I think about the challenges of reporting on China, I think about my strange and brief relationship with Yan Junren. It's still a source of regret and confusion for me a year later, but none of that is Yan's fault. Last year, I stumbled into the murky world of engaging with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its proxies in New Zealand, a world our politicians are also bumping around in. I was studying Mandarin, but I was not, to use an increasingly useful phrase, "China literate," and it showed.
BECOMING A 'FRIEND OF CHINA'
I came across Yan when I was writing a piece about Falun Gong, a spiritual group persecuted as an "evil cult" by the Chinese government. The thrust of the story was that Falun Gong followers who fled to New Zealand as refugees still feared the long-arm of the Chinese regime. Since Canterbury University professor Anne-Marie Brady's Magic Weapons paper was published in 2017, headlines about Chinese political interference were building, as journalists started to make sense of the information treasure trove that dropped into their laps.
The headlines were alarming to Chinese dissidents, who came here to live outside the CCP's jealous rule over public life. One of the people I interviewed, Sanpu He, managed to reach New Zealand after escaping from a notorious re-education centre in China. He still demonstrates regularly outside the Chinese consulate in Auckland, silently performing the qigong movements that saw him detained and tortured in his homeland.
Yan Junren moved to New Zealand from Suzhou two decades ago. Before that he worked at the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, an agency that controls and censors Chinese state media. He is the president of the Peaceful Reunification of China Association of New Zealand (PRCANZ), which is organised and subsidised by the CCP to do what the party calls "united front" influencing work in foreign countries. At the Justice Select Committee inquiry into foreign interference, New Zealand Security Intelligence Service boss Rebecca Kitteridge has made specific reference to New Zealand-based "proxies" for foreign governments. PRCANZ is one of them.
For all intents and purposes, Yan represents the Chinese party-state. I know this now.
Last year he was filmed at a Falun Gong demonstration in Auckland, berating the demonstrators with a loudspeaker and calling them blind and deaf. I wanted to understand why Falun Gong got Yan so worked up, so I interviewed him for my story. In a long and colourful tirade, he told me the group's followers are "completely confused people who have been brainwashed," and that he hoped I would use my pen to "propagandise to the world that justice will always overcome evil".
I stayed in touch with Yan, thinking he might make a good contact in future. I believed that in his role with PRCANZ, he was a kind of community leader, who represented the views of Auckland's Chinese diaspora. Over the next month, we talked on the Chinese messaging app WeChat. I told him I was soon travelling to China to visit newsrooms and practice Mandarin. This was when our relationship took a strange turn.
A couple of months out from my trip, Yan invited me to lunch at Huami, a fancy Chinese restaurant behind big red doors in central Auckland. We dined on a delicious and seemingly endless yum cha menu. After talking proudly about China for a while, Yan made me an offer: he wanted to cover the costs of my upcoming trip. He was a former journalist in the People's Republic, and would arrange for me to visit all the Chinese media agencies. He would also sort out a guide to show me around.
It was an awkward lunch, not helped by the fact that my Chinese colleague was having to interpret much of what Yan and I said to each other. I explained that I was travelling to China through an internal scholarship and the costs were already covered. Towards the end of the discussion, Yan's wife, who had been quietly eating, suddenly said something: it was important for our new relationship that I keep in touch with them.
After the lunch, Yan wanted the names and addresses of the hotels where I would stay in China. I never gave him the info, but as my departure date neared, he constantly asked for it, saying his friend would book rooms at the same hotels and act as my guide. At this point I had no idea if he was making a generous offer, or wanted to control what I saw in China, or just wanted to keep an eye on me. I also didn't want to spoil a good contact, or know if my refusing his offer was a kind of cultural insult.
Yan seemed focused on the trip to the point of obsession, and clearly saw himself as having taken charge of it. Although I never revealed anything more to him about my plans, I was still half-expecting to run into him, or his friend, when I landed in Beijing. But he was nowhere to be seen. I wandered around China practicing Mandarin and to the country's credit, I was free to go and do as I pleased.
The doctrine of the CCP government, including specific policies for controlling foreigners' interactions with Chinese people, has been well-documented in Brady's work. It's in this context that Yan's persistence begins to make sense. It wasn't that he took a passing interest in a random journalist's trip to China; it was his duty, in his current role in New Zealand-based united front work, to become as involved as possible.
It also explains Yan's reasons for turning up at to that demonstration with a loudspeaker last year: the CCP has actively suppressed Falun Gong since it was outlawed in China in 1999, when its rising popularity began to be viewed as an existential threat to the party. Yan seems to pop up whenever Chinese New Zealanders hold demonstrations on topics sensitive to Beijing. On Saturday in Auckland, he was filmed at a Hong Kong pro-democracy rally, taking photos of the protesters with a clipboard under his arm.
Our lunch at Huami was an opportunity for him to do sixiang gongzuo, or "thought work" - a standard term in the party language - to guide my thinking on such topics. The endgame was to turn me into waiguo pengyou: a "friend of China".
I just wanted to eat dumplings with a contact.
It's this kind of collision in values that politicians, reporters and universities are having to navigate in their dealings with the CCP.
A JUNKET TO XINJIANG
Yan's offer wasn't the last I got for free travel to China. In November, I wrote a story about Uighur refugees, members of a Muslim ethnic minority whose families in China disappeared into internment camps. The CCP has come under international pressure over the detention facilities, which it describes as "vocational training centres". I interviewed refugees, now New Zealand citizens, who had not heard from their loved ones in years and didn't know if they were still alive.
Seven months after the story ran, an email popped into my inbox from the Chinese Embassy. The staff had seen my story and they wanted to offer me a trip with other reporters to Xinjiang, the email said. That's the region in northwestern China where Uighurs live. The costs of my time on the ground would be covered by the Chinese government and my company would need to pay for the flights.
Since reports surfaced that a million or more Uighurs were being held in internment camps, the CCP has been arranging Potemkin village-style tours of the Xinjiang region for reporters and diplomats. Journalists have described being chaperoned around some of the camps, viewing dubious scenes of Uighurs singing and dancing and declaring they were once "infected with extremist thought".
But who wants to turn down free travel?
In an age of declining ad revenue, offers from Chinese interests with bottomless pockets are ever more tantalising for journalists. Several Kiwi reporters, for example, have travelled to China as guests of Huawei, and the NZ Herald has been criticised for a sponsorship deal with the Chinese tech giants.
As a reporter writing about the NZ-China relationship, if I accepted a trip from the CCP, my credibility would be called into question. It would be like a health researcher accepting funding from Philip Morris.
A CHANCE TO BE ON TV
In March, I was asked to do an interview for CGTN, the Chinese government's international television network, about ties between New Zealand and China ahead of Jacinda Ardern's visit to Beijing. This might sound innocent enough, but Chinese state media is notorious for taking foreigners' words out of context, or in the case of Dame Jenny Shipley this year, devising entire opinion pieces under their name that they did not write.
CGTN has also broadcast forced confessions from people detained in China, for example, UK fraud investigator and former Reuters journalist, Peter Humphrey.
Unlike the New Zealand government, the CCP does not accept a plurality of views. Instead, China's leaders regard the press as the houshe, or "throat and tongue," of the party. This means anything I said on CGTN that didn't fit the party-approved narrative simply couldn't be broadcast. I would be lending my voice to a skewed story.
The reputational cost for an interview with Chinese state media can be huge, as Shipley found out.
But what journalist wouldn't view it as flattering, or even career-enhancing, to do an interview on global TV?
Published: Stuff.co.nz, September 2019