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Chinese Whispers

Steve Nicoll



Half a world away from the Celestial Kingdom, the pressure of the Chinese government is being felt in a small newsroom in Dixon Street. In light of recent events concerning the banning of journalist Nick Wang from the Beehive, Salient editor Steve Nicoll investigates local accounts of the Chinese government’s meddling in our local media.

When Nick Wang was a secret donor for the student democratic movement in China, he was afraid of being photographed. Now, working as a reporter for local rag the Capital Chinese News, China’s Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan is afraid of Wang taking the shots.
In case you missed the headlines, Wang was the editor expelled from a photo opportunity last week, when Zeng and Finance Minister Michael Cullen met up for a little chat. Police escorted Mr Wang from the Beehive theatrette, after he was singled out by a Chinese security official. Outside, police accused Wang of being both a member of the Falun Gong movement and of becoming highly agitated – both of which hardly constitute a crime (in New Zealand, at least). Wang and his photographer, Tony Clark (who was also present at the incident), told me that no violence or unnecessary force was evident on either side. Footage from TV1 and TV3 confirm this, showing what can best be described as indignant behavior. Links to the Falun Gong also appear to be fictious. When I spoke with Joan Zhang, a spokesperson for the local Falun Gong movement, she told me that Wang has never been a member. In light of this, Wang’s treatment seems to be completely inappropriate – especially considering that he intended to write a general story about the visit. “I didn’t think about a negative or positive [portrayal] of China. I had no information at that time,” said Wang.
The incident raised a number of issues surrounding the state of New Zealand’s press freedom and undue influence from foreign countries. Wang was escorted by police from the meeting while Chinese media were permitted to stay. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act clearly forbids this kind of treatment, as discrimination on political grounds is a breach of freedom of expression. As this story goes to print, the reaction from politicians surrounding the matter is varied. Dr Cullen claims that the situation was caused by a misunderstanding. Perhaps that misunderstanding is that, in matters concerning China, New Zealand’s rule of law must go by the wayside. Wang believes that the actions of the police were a result of his critical reporting on the Chinese government. This includes stories on the Falun Gong, visits from the Dalai Lama and the anniversary of Tiananmen Square. There is good evidence to support this idea. In the past, Chinese officials have tried to interfere with and manage dissent. In 1999, a bus was driven between protestors and visiting Chinese Premier, Jiang Zemin. In 2005 they tried to stop the late Green Party co-leader, Rod Donald, from holding a Tibetan flag for a visit from China’s second-ranked politician, Wu Bangguo. If Chinese representatives have taken offence to such minor criticism (in some cases by mere handfuls of people), then is there good reason to believe they will do it again? What it takes to cause offence, as it turns out, is relatively little.
Tiananmen Tank Man
Wang started to ruffle Chinese feathers with an article he wrote in 1999, about the Tiananmen democratic movement. Wang reported that while Chinese officials said it was a criminal movement he believed the students involved were in the right. At that time the only people raising eyebrows were his peers, who said that he should have been more respectful. An entirely different reaction occurred in 2004, after Wang published a full page article on the fifteenth anniversary of the killing of pro-democracy protestors around Tiananmen Square. Alongside the iconic image of students with tanks, it contained the text, “There are many countries that have demonstrations of this anniversary across the world”. While hardly damning, and completely true, it’s apparently the most critical information on the page. The reaction of the Chinese Embassy was swift; they immediately called him, demanding an explanation. “They said, ‘it’s not good, the readers will be unhappy that you publish this, it’s not true. This could be affecting your business relationships with China.’ I told them, ‘I just follow the freedom of speech here.’” The tone of that rebuke reveals extraordinary arrogance. Wang says he was surprised at the extent of meddling from the Chinese. “I’ve published Clinton’s sex scandals and I’ve never been rung by the American Embassy.” Wang remained defiant to Chinese officials, maintaining that the issue was trivial – with only a minority (thirty percent, according to Wang) of Capital Chinese News content critical of the Chinese government. “I told them that on the fifteenth anniversary of Tiananmen Square – as a Chinese paper – if I don’t say anything, I’d feel sad and guilty.” Consequences quickly followed. After responding to an invitation from a Chinese provincial foreign affairs office, Wang’s passport application was declined. According to Wang, no official explanation was provided – but he has little doubt it concerned the publication of the 2004 article.
When West Is East and Nobody Speaks
Why the Chinese failed to respect and understand the rights of a paper operating in New Zealand is anyone’s guess. It’s not an isolated incident, either. In 2005, when the New Zealand government bowed to pressure from China and backtracked an invitation to a senior Taiwan politician, the Dominion Post received a tap on the shoulder. Following publication of an editorial supporting Peter Dunne’s criticism of the action, editor Tim Pankhurst got a call from the Chinese Embassy. “[They were] protesting our view and pointing out that it was … New Zealand government policy to support a One China policy. I said, ‘Yes, but what you have to understand [is] that we are not bound by New Zealand government policy’. That is a concept that the Chinese struggle with.” The Chinese government’s struggle to understand another country’s way of life has meant Wang cannot return to visit his extended family. Despite these severed ties to his homeland, Wang says he doesn’t prefer living there to New Zealand. He left Inner Mongolia, after his father (a professor of grassland and forestry) visited New Zealand as part of a Chinese Minister’s delegation and was allowed to emigrate. At the time, Wang was working as a water conservation engineer and admits that life was considerably different to the freedom he now enjoys. At that time, Wang secretly supported the Tiananmen Square movement but was careful to avoid exposure. “If I was photographed, my boss could have reported me to the police and I would not have been able to apply for a passport. Before I came to New Zealand, I had to sign a piece of paper stating that I had never been anti the communist party.” Upon arrival in Wellington in 1996, Wang began learning English at Massey University. After developing proficient English skills, he formed an immigration consultancy firm and quickly saw the business potential in creating a newspaper that represented the interests of the increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants in Wellington. “At the time, Auckland had several Chinese language newspapers. Even Dunedin had one. So I thought, ‘Why does Wellington not have one?’ Also, new immigrants didn’t know how to be a voter. I think it’s important to describe the democratic system and culture [to them].” The Capital Chinese News started in 1998 and this experience lead Wang to reinforce attitudes his homeland doesn’t share. Wang says that concerns for human rights issues became an important focus after the Chinese revoked his passport. “I understood I had a duty to tell readers about human rights in China and freedom of expression. People from China look at New Zealanders and think how lucky they are. There are not so many political struggles and difficulties, in comparison. I have got a big responsibility.” That’s a responsibility shared by Pankhurst, who says that the press must remain free from government control. “They [the Chinese Government] are way out of line to dictate to us how we might cover their visits … and the New Zealand media won’t cop it. They don’t have any leverage that they can apply here, therefore, we don’t feel at all threatened.”
While that leverage is supposed to be illusionary in our free and democratic society, Wang maintains that the Police bowed to the interests of the Chinese. “I asked the police, ‘Are you earning Chinese currency today?’” In the pursuit of truth, it would appear that that’s a price Wang can live without.