Media Engagement in China: A Series of Ethical Questions

Feb 22, 2022

In the 1950s, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev bemoaned that the United States wouldn’t even sell buttons to the Soviet Union. "Buttons can hold up a soldier’s trousers," he groused. Today, China is far more entangled with the United States than the Soviet Union was, and the relationship trades in far more than buttons. In a new series of dialogues, Carnegie Council is exploring the question: How should American institutions engage with China? The first event of the series examines the ethical questions that media outlets and journalists must grapple with when reporting on China.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Good morning, everyone. Thank you for joining us for the kickoff event for the Boundary Series at the Carnegie Council, where we debate the questions: Where do you draw the line with China? Where does engagement end?

I am thrilled to be starting with three world-class journalists who have covered China for quite a long time to help us debate these issues in the media context. In later events we will be doing universities, hospitals, nonprofits, and financial institutions, really trying to grapple with some of the most pressing issues of our time.

To start, I want people by way of an introduction to tell me one of the early times when you were reporting either from Beijing back in the day or reporting on China from the United States an ethical issue that you had to grapple with and one of the earlier times that you realized this was a minefield reporting on China.

Bay, do you want to kick us off?

BAY FANG: Well, I would have to go pretty far back. I reported from China beginning in the late 1990s through the early 2000s, and the environment then was very different than it is now. In some ways it was much easier. We could travel around, everyone knew that you keep two passports—one has your journalist's visa in it and one has your tourist one in it—and it was fairly easy to travel around. Even though you introduced yourself as a foreign journalist, people were generally very open to talking to you.

One of the very early stories that I did was on women migrant workers who were kidnapped in China and sold as wives to other parts of China. I got that story from reading the Chinese newspapers and seeing that there was one police officer who was touted as a hero for rescuing some of these women. I spoke to him and found a couple of women who had been rescued and then spoke to some people who were working on the story. I think throughout all of this it was really important to keep in mind the safety of the sources that I had. I'm sure it's very different now, but I think that was one of the first stories that I covered where it was people talking to me who had no idea of what effect being written about in the foreign media might have.

ISAAC STONE FISH: That's a great point. Thank you, Bay.

David, let's go to you.

DAVID BARBOZA: There are so many. I was there 12 years, so I am just thinking which one is really relevant.

I think one of the early ones was I got an email from someone saying: "I read your work on Enron and I have a bigger story for you. You have to come and meet me."

I went and met this Chinese individual, and he said, "Bring your passport." It turned out that he was an American citizen of Chinese descent who was about to give me all of these secret documents to blow this big story up about one of China's largest banks. Just prior to its initial public offering he had worked on the case.

This is in some ways not different than what I would deal with in the United States, but because it's in China and because he was worried about the Chinese government and their reaction to it, we had to act differently.

He wanted to be sure who I was and my identity and my passport, and I also wanted to be sure of who he was and I wanted to see his credentials and get trust as far as these documents; so many of the same things I would go through in a story here. I wanted to see the documents in person, I wanted to vet those documents, I wanted to think about how to protect this person who did not want to be named.

At one point in the process of that reporting, he called me up and said, "Quick, I need you to fly to Beijing"—I was based in Shanghai—"I'm going to the airport. I think the government knows who I am and I want you to escort me to the airport so I can fly back to New York. That's how worried I am."

Actually, he also asked me to go to the U.S. embassy in Beijing with him to tell them the story of how he was going to give me these documents and things. So there were a bunch of questions like: Should I be going to the U.S. embassy with this guy? Should I be going to the airport with him? I even actually went to his bank with him at one point just to prove that he worked at this bank. He wanted to take me to the top floor of the headquarters of the bank, and there were these different people seeing this guy coming in.

I was going through this and I was saying: "Wait a minute. Is this guy setting me up? Is he actually taking me to the bank to extort the bank?" There were a bunch of different crazy scenarios in that story that I had to deal with.

I won't tell you how all that ends, but it's a very China-like story where everything you think might go wrong—Where am I? How do I prove these documents? They're in Chinese. Do I get them translated? Do we hire an accountant? Do I trust this person? There were many, many things that happened in the course of that story.

ISAAC STONE FISH: You can't tell us how it ended?

DAVID BARBOZA: We did publish, I will tell you that. We did publish, not exactly how we thought we would publish, but we did publish.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Thanks, David.

Megha, what about you?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: There is a lot, as David pointed out. I think source safety, as Dave was talking about, is probably the biggest one.

I actually was thinking about a different kind of ethical question. I started my China reporting career at Reuters and they have a really big bureau there. There were a number of people who were foreign nationals and there was also a number of people who were Chinese nationals or people who were Chinese nationals and then naturalized in a different country like Singapore or something like that. I had never considered before starting to work in China that there would be this huge difference in work for people with Chinese nationality and people who didn't have Chinese nationality, to the point that people would even go and get naturalized in a different country so they could come back and report as a foreigner. That is a point that is quite obvious to people who have worked in the country for a long time, but it is not spoken about that much outside and is probably not known very well by readers.

Basically, as you all know, the law in China is that if you hold a Chinese passport, you can't have a job title that is like "reporter" or "correspondent" and so forth. A lot of times they're doing the exact same work as a reporter who has a foreign passport, but they cannot get byline credit, or, if they get byline credit, it has to be the second byline.

They are also really limited in the kinds of topics they can cover because of issues around sensitivity and risk. I feel like that was an ethical thing that we thought about pretty much every single day. I worked on the politics team, and I had a Chinese colleague on that team who had to think really hard about what she could cover, and we had to think about those issues as a team as well.

It is a tough one because you want to give people credit for the work that they have done, and of course they deserve that, but it is this kind of constant balancing act of figuring out: What is too sensitive? Is my co-worker going to be harassed for working on a certain project? Should this person go to a demonstration on X or is that considered too sensitive?

Of course, the goalposts are always moving. It is a dynamic situation when it comes to assessing risk. I think if I were to go back now and work as a journalist there, I wouldn't even know where a lot of these lines are because it is one of those things you have to monitor on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis.

I think it is actually quite important to understand about China coverage that a lot of the coverage even that you see in foreign media is actually done by Chinese journalists. It's just that they don't necessarily get the credit that they should get for it.

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think that's an excellent point.

Megha, when you are talking about these red lines, it's a question if things are too sensitive that they get people in danger to cover, does that mean that we are in some ways censoring the coverage that we're doing because we are protecting people? And then, what is the duty of the reporter to his source and his colleagues and what is the duty to the truth or to the reader?

I am curious how that dichotomy has evolved for all of you. You all spent time covering China in China and now you cover China from outside of China.

Megha, you talked a bit about those red lines. I am curious about your perception of the ethical minefields and those lines now that you're on the outside.

David, let's start with you with this one.

DAVID BARBOZA: I don't think it has changed much in my perception, but it has changed obviously for people inside of China. I am outside, so I don't think as much about what I can cover and cannot cover. I am not worried, working outside of China, that I am followed everywhere.

One thing about being inside of China is, especially the final two years that I was there, which was 2014 and 2015, I thought every day about starting the day by going through my seven Gmail accounts and figuring out which one I was going to use today and how I was going to erase stuff and how I was going to move stuff from one to another and clean up things.

The hackers were constantly trying to attack my accounts. We found electronics equipment in our home. If I'm telling my wife I'm going to travel, how do I get that message to her? Do I tell her at home? Do we go for a walk? There were a lot of challenges I faced in the final years there, and I think those have just been amplified recently by all the changes with the government and all the intense surveillance.

A lot of the surveillance I felt when I was there was individuals on foot. As I mentioned to you last night, I could see the state security agents at the Starbucks downstairs from my office. Their eyes would move up when I walked by. I knew they were interviewing my research assistants, taking them to tea every few weeks.

All of those things I thought about reporting and worrying about red lines. I wasn't worried about what I was publishing. I was really worrying about how I was going to go about the job, and also how I was going to meet sources in China. Literally, at a teahouse in Beijing, which I had traveled to because I was based on Shanghai, I am interviewing a person. It's not that serious an interview, but he says to me, "Do you see those people recording next to us?" I didn't pick this up, but there were three people with recorders and they were holding up their phones and they seemed to be recording. We left and they followed us. They seemed to be recording us wherever I went in Beijing, trying to track us, trying to show up where I was going, and following the cabs.

There was a lot of that in the pre-surveillance era that I had to think about. Even not meeting a person who is sensitive, this person is going to be very disrupted if he's saying, "Why am I meeting you and you are followed by these agents, and they think I'm giving you something?"

There were times when people came to my office and dropped off things at the door or even tried to hand them to me to accept, and I was worried about accepting anything, like someone is trying to hand you a disk. There were lots of challenges I faced as a reporter. Again, this wasn't about what I was going to write or not. It was really about how do I go about my job day to day.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Thank you, David.

Bay, you manage an organization that has dozens of really excellent journalists with pretty deep ties to China. I wonder how you manage the ethical concerns that they all face.

BAY FANG: It's a great question.

I wanted to back up a little bit and give people an idea of what Radio Free Asia (RFA) is about.

Yes, my circumstances have changed. I went from being a foreign correspondent to now being president of an organization that was created by Congress after Tiananmen Square happened, after the massacre happened, and after the Chinese government cover-up of that news. The idea was to create an organization that would do surrogate broadcasting.

Basically we are supporting the foreign policy objectives of the United States not by actually propagandizing what U.S. policy is but by actually modeling a free press that we believe is important for democracy and for democratic societies around the world.

We basically do surrogate broadcasting from the outside in most cases but into countries that are controlled by authoritarian governments where people can't otherwise get a free and open press. As you said, just broadcasting into China we have a Mandarin service, a Cantonese service, a Tibetan service, and the only Uyghur service in the world.

We have about a dozen Uyghur reporters who came from Xinjiang and now live in the United States. For them it is a very personal matter. They do the reporting from overseas, but they know very well how to plug into sources and how to get information. They were some of the first to report about what has now been deemed a genocide by two American administrations. They actually had family members picked up and detained inside Xinjiang, and that was the way the Chinese government got to them. It is really a testament to their courage and the importance that they put on being these people who are reporting what is happening in Xinjiang to the world that they haven't stopped doing their reporting.

It is definitely easier to be on the outside for myself, but for these reporters that is something that they're thinking about every day. When they start doing their jobs, what is happening to their families is foremost on their minds, but they think that the good they can do by continuing to expose what's happening there outweighs their own personal interests of having relatives picked up and thrown into these gulags.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Thank you, Bay.

Megha, you have done some of the best reporting on the camps in Xinjiang. How do you balance the ethical imperatives? How do you protect sources? Also, what do you do with sources who don't want to be protected; how do you manage that for them?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: It's a really good question.

I have become sort of obsessed with this question of source protection in the Xinjiang context in the past couple of years. I think for a lot of sources the calculus is not actually that different from what Bay just described in terms of dealing with Uyghur reporters and the issues that Uyghur reporters that work for RFA have in advocating for their own families and their own families facing repercussions for their reporting.

The Xinjiang issue is really tricky. We published a series over the past two years that relied pretty heavily on the accounts of several dozen people who were former detainees as well as some prisoners in Xinjiang. Most of these people have emigrated legally and have a legal status in the country they now reside in. A lot of them were in Kazakhstan and were ethnic Kazakhs as well.

When we were going to do these interviews the approach I tried to take was just like informed consent. Some people are not literate, they may not have a high school degree, I think all of them speak almost no English, so in that context it is really hard to explain what it means when your name and photo show up in a publication like BuzzFeed, which has really good search engine optimization and will be at the top of Google results forever. I think we have a duty of care to explain that, make sure that it's really understood, and to make it known that something can happen to your family and that I can't help them if something like that were to come to pass. They have to make a decision having all of that information and knowing all of the risks and how bad the situation could get.

Crazily enough, there are people who are still willing to speak to the media even in those circumstances. I genuinely believe for a lot of them it is because they realize if they don't do it, then nobody else is going to step up and do it, and readers just won't have the knowledge. I'm not going to say that every single person who has spoken to the media about the camps in Xinjiang has that motivation. People have other motivations as well, just like in any other kind of reporting, but I feel like that is really important to point out because as much as you want to explain the risks to people and make sure that no harm whatsoever comes to them or their family, I am not in a position to tell somebody that they shouldn't be sharing their story or they can't share their story. That is their decision to make, and they have to be given autonomy to be able to do that in an informed way, like being informed about risk, I think.

That is the balance we have tried to strike. It's a very hard thing because you can never eliminate risk in these circumstances. I do think that some people have just made the choice to be public about this. They understand that it will give them more credibility if there is a photo, if there is a name, rather than just being anonymous, and they have made this decision that that additional credibility is worth it in order to bring more attention to the issue and that they have a unique responsibility or a unique drive to do that.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Thank you. I appreciate all of your honesty on sharing your own experiences and the experiences of your organizations.

I would like us to step back a second and talk about the ethics for other media outlets that are currently in China. What ethical compromises do you feel like bureaus in Hong Kong and in the Mainland should make or shouldn't make in order to stay there?

Megha, let's go back to you on that one.

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: I think each organization is different. I personally think that nobody should be censoring work. That sounds obvious, but news organizations do censor work to stay in other countries.

I think Thailand is a good example of this. Unlike China, there is a little bit more clarity on where you can and can't go. In that particular case, because of the really strict lèse-majesté law, when you read about the Thai royal family, if you actually look at the datelines and the bylines, it is very rarely somebody who is actually posted in Thailand or actually lives in Thailand because it would be very dangerous. You could get arrested very easily for something like that. But there are a lot of other things that you can write about in Thailand with no problems. In that case, I think a lot of news organizations have made a decision that it is not exactly censorship but it is changing the coverage in order to stay in the country. I could see news organizations making decisions like that when it comes to China.

My personal experience of the style with which the government deals with news organizations can be different because Chinese embassies will contact the head office of the news org and try to put pressure on them and say: "Don't report on this or don't report on that. You've got this wrong, you've got that wrong." Of course they are within their rights to do that, and a lot of governments do that, but it's a little bit different in that they care if there is reporting that they feel is unfair or they feel is negative, even if it doesn't actually come from the person who is reporting within China.

It's a bit of a calculus. To me, to change coverage of the country in order to get a bureau in is probably not something that I think would be entirely ethical, but it is something that I think has to be decided. There are costs and benefits to both, and I do feel that not having reporters in China you sacrifice a lot in terms of coverage, knowledge of the country, and what you get to readers.

At this point, there are a lot fewer foreign correspondents in China than there were previously, and I think the cumulative impact of that can be seen in the coverage.

ISAAC STONE FISH: David or Bay, anything to add to that?

BAY FANG: Yes. I think Megha is right that it is a really nuanced question.

We have never had bureaus in Mainland China, but I think the question of what we do in Hong Kong speaks to this. We recently made the decision in conjunction with our Hong Kong reporters to change some of our Cantonese commentary so that it is done more by people outside of Hong Kong, but we are definitely keeping as fulsome a slate of Cantonese commentary as we had before. We are not changing our news coverage of Hong Kong, and we are definitely not compromising on anything in terms of our coverage of Hong Kong, but we are making that difficult decision, just for the safety of our reporters, to change some of the Hong Kong-based commentators to ones outside of the territory. That is nuanced. Some people could say that that is compromising our coverage, but we feel like that is a tradeoff that we're willing to make.

We have no interest or the possibility of having a bureau in Mainland China, but we also think that frees us up to do some reporting that we wouldn't otherwise feel comfortable doing if we did have people in China.

DAVID BARBOZA: I would like to add, yes, I think that's exactly right what they both said.

To me, the calculus would really be about protecting my reporters and deciding who gets in and out of China, how you want them to report, and whether they should actually file something, especially obviously if they are a Chinese citizen or even of Chinese descent because the Chinese government will treat them differently.

As far as the reporting coverage, I would be worried about any major news organization that changed its coverage to keep a bureau inside China. I would say it's not worth doing. There could be some nuance here along the edges, but I think once you go down that route, it could be a very dangerous slippery slope.

Some people believe the Chinese government may have hinted to Bloomberg, "If you ever write about Xi Jinping, you'll lose your bureau, you'll lose all of your terminals." Suppose they just made that the law? Everyone is like, "Well, we want a bureau so we have to accept that." So, signaling to a government that we will not publish certain things, or even hinting that maybe we'll keep out some things, I think would be a very bad precedent for journalism.

There is also, as Bay said, the freedom of not having a bureau and not having the worry that some news organizations may have that, "Oh, if we publish this, even if it's outside China, they might punish the reporter in China." Well, I don't have a bureau there right now, so we don't even have to think about when we publish that some of our reporters are in danger in China. I would rather the news organizations stick to a very strong line: "We will report freely and openly any story we get from China or about China and we won't worry that it is going to lead to closure or harm coming to those in China."

Also, what Megha said earlier, which is that you want informed consent with all your own reporters: "We are going to be publishing a series outside of China, but you are in Beijing right now. Do you want to be there? Do you understand what might happen, that they could retaliate against our Beijing correspondents?" We have seen that with The Wall Street Journal and others. I think we have to be careful about the safety and security of our researchers and of our reporters but also not signal to any government that we are going to change our coverage.

ISAAC STONE FISH: We are right in the middle of the Olympics, and in some ways this is an ideal situation for Beijing because it is such a controlled environment. They have very successfully used COVID-19 as a way to keep people from circulating. It seems in some ways it could be a proxy for what coverage of China could evolve into if bureaus are increasingly forced to make compromises where they have to leave China so the only people in China are those willing to amplify propagandistic Chinese voices or are willing to stay away from sensitive stories. I wonder if you could speak about what we lose in the United States if we lose that coverage.

David, let's start with you on that one.

DAVID BARBOZA: Do you mean what do we lose in the United States if we don't report openly and freely?

ISAAC STONE FISH: The Times has had a lot of pretty serious pressures to leave China. They are still there, but it is not hard to imagine a situation where they don't have anyone in China or Hong Kong because the cost is too high. I wonder what American leaders and the American public loses without that.

DAVID BARBOZA: I see. You lose tremendously. You're not going to have on-the-ground reporters. It is not the same to fly into China to cover the Olympics as it is to live there, live with it every day.

You need lots of different angles in reporting, and I think it's helpful to have people come into the country and report or fly in, and sometimes they see things that we don't see if we are living on the ground. But you also need people there every day who are living through the system. If you don't have that, if The Times and The Post and The Wall Street Journal and others don't have bureaus, you are just not going to have the same texture and feel for the country and the dangers and the pressures. It is going to lead to more, I would say, biased reporting by not having people.

I would say even with the Chinese government you want to try to have a relationship there because having just the distance of "It's just a voice of propaganda" is not going to give you an understanding of this country. If you just stereotype the Chinese government as this big evil force and you don't even want to hear what they say in their press statements, you are just so distanced from them.

I want to meet them for lunch. I want to try to get to know them—anyone in China. I want to get to know the government. I want to get to know the sources on the ground, the factory workers; I want to bring home to Americans what is it like to produce the goods that you're buying every day. What does that look like? Who are the people who make those goods? There is so much we need because the United States gets so much from China. It is engaged in China in so many deep ways. Not having that interaction and that empathy also for what it's like for them, what it's like on the other side—

I can recall many years ago joining a radio talk show while I was covering China, and the kind of commentary that we were getting from the people calling in about Chinese eating dogs and different things and all the stereotypes made me think, Wow, am I doing a poor job of reporting from China that callers into this program are reading our articles and seeing everything as so simplistic?

I think one of the jobs of a reporter is to bring that complexity and that nuance to the story. I know editors often want to cut that stuff out, but I think that actually makes the story better, to try to get the reader to see that this is very difficult. There are all sorts of difficult choices we are making, and I think that's where the reporters not only need to be on the ground, but they need to understand back home what people are reading and how they are perceiving your work.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Bay and Megha, what do you think?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: I can chime in on that. Yes, I think you lose an awful lot. I totally agree with everything that David said.

The really obvious stuff is that the reader loses a connection with the fabric of everyday life, as you mentioned. The workers who are actually building the stuff that is then shipped to the United States is a good example of this.

I feel like one of the things that I learned, which I was very surprised by when I first moved to China and was basically a cub reporter at Reuters, was how all of the foreign press coverage there has outsized importance. The reason for that is that the censorship of Chinese domestic media is of course so heavy that a lot of it is pretty untrustworthy. That means that even people within the country rely heavily on publications like The New York Times and other Western publications just to learn what's happening, which is kind of insane to think about. It is crazy to think that we're losing that.

When I started reporting there, I was doing a lot of really bread-and-butter everyday beat reporting. I went to a lot of foreign ministry briefings and covered a ton of state visits and stuff like that. A lot of that was really routine work; it was just transcribing in Chinese and then translating. I couldn't tell you how many times government officials in the United States, like diplomats and folks who work in Congress, have said how impactful just those little, tiny stories were. You would think it wouldn't be that important because things that come from briefings seem to be the sort of things that you could get from a ministry website or state media, but in fact reporters go to these briefings to ask questions, and sometimes the questions get good answers.

On top of that, a lot of times the transcripts that are put on Chinese government sites are redacted or flawed. It seems like a really small thing, but these are the little things that turn the gears of diplomacy. I think it is really, really important that that information be correct, be out there, and be accessible to the public and to people in policymaking positions.

I think it's really vital, particularly at this time, to have good reporting from within China because in the States we are at this moment where we see China as an entity being heavily demonized by politicians and other leaders. There is a kind of flattening that comes with that, which I think is familiar unfortunately in America, in the way that we talk about foreign countries whose governments are perceived as adversaries. I think it's important that American readers, as David pointed out, not see China as this monolithic country that is full of nationalistic antagonists, as I think it is often unfairly portrayed. It is an incredibly diverse country.

Beyond that, the U.S.-China relationship is the most important diplomatic relationship in the world by a lot. China is one of the two most important economic powers in the world. It is obviously a hugely influential and important story to cover, and if you don't have people who are able to report on the ground, or even if the situation is like now where you just have a lot fewer people, I think everyone loses. It is not just about press freedom. It's not about us as journalists. It's about everyone's right to know and understand this issue to the greatest extent possible.

BAY FANG: I totally agree with both David and Megha. Having been a foreign correspondent in Beijing for many years and now having this perspective from the outside, I think it is really important, for all the reasons that you guys laid out, like understanding the fabric of society.

Beijing should understand—you could kind of imagine a future where this Olympic example, as you pointed out, Isaac, is expanded to cover all of the foreign correspondents, where there is this sort of bubble around what you can and can't see—that they would lose out too because there wouldn't be people who are able to talk to regular people and find out what people are thinking and all the nuances of that.

I will also point out that it is possible to do that kind of shoe-leather reporting from outside. It is very different, and of course you need to have the experience of having lived in China and having people you can call upon there, but we do have reporters.

For example, in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was first coming out of Wuhan, we actually saw a 900 percent increase in our social media engagement, and it was because people inside the country, many of whom were sealed off from anything in terms of news from the outside world, like from inside Wuhan, were desperate to get news of what was happening.

We had reporters here who actually did very basic shoe-leather reporting to find out whether the number of deaths that the Chinese reported that came out during the first couple of months of the lockdown was accurate. They had reported 2,800 death. Our reporters just called around to the seven main funeral parlors—they knew that in Wuhan there were seven main funeral parlors—and they fact-checked that with provincial numbers that were being released and called around to families in the area, and they came out with a number that was like 46,000. Later on, CNN got leaked documents that basically verified that that was the case, that the Chinese government had vastly underreported that number. That is something I don't think we could have done inside the country. You would have attracted attention to yourself if you were poking around and asking these kinds of questions. So I do think that is possible.

Similarly, there was actually a story done about one of our Uyghur reporters by Vice News, who basically makes a hundred phone calls a day to different local police stations around Xinjiang, and he gets a lot of information from even people who are police officers working for the government in China. He broke a story recently that the Uyghur torchbearer from the 2008 Olympics is five years into a 14-year sentence for having watched counterrevolutionary videos, and that is something that he got and we verified.

So there is this other kind of reporting that you can do, but I definitely agree that there is something that would be lost if you didn't have people on the ground.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Really great points, Bay.

Megha and David, you were talking—and this has come up before too—about the idea of demonization of China in some U.S. perceptions. I wonder about the ethical concerns with both there being another "red scare" in the United States against party influence and also the very real phenomenon of anti-Asian American hate in the United States.

How do reporters manage those strains in their discourse, and how do you do that without censoring?

DAVID BARBOZA: I can start because, as a reporter and an editor, my biggest problem right now is to think every day about what we cover and whether that coverage is tough enough and honest enough about China, but also whether I'm feeding the sort of narrative that is a demonization of China in everything. I think about every cover story that we do and what that is saying. I almost wonder whether I'm thinking about it too much.

I used to think about this when I was in China for The New York Times and people pointed out that The New York Times was very biased. You look at every story and you try to say, "Well, how many of these stories might be considered negative versus not so negative?"—not like pro-China and anti-China, not that simple; but if people are getting a stream from any publication, could they sit there at the end of the year, add them up, and say, "Well, this is the impression you gave us this year"?

If the impression is every story is an investigation—which is one reason I don't really want to be an investigative reporter because that means everything you're publishing is an investigation, everything is like "Aha!"—how do you think about the accumulation of all of your stories? If someone could read every story you've ever written on China—or any subject—what would the impression be, and does that reflect your own experience?

My experience in China was pretty amazing, good, bad, all over the place—like maybe any other country—so I would like my reporting to reflect that. I think reporters and editors ought to consider that. When you are putting together your package of stories, you don't want to hold back the investigations, but you also don't want every portrait of China to be a beast, even though there are things that are really ugly about China and we definitely don't want to censor those things. You also want to think about what you're not covering.

My big ethical challenge now—and maybe through my whole career, but particularly now—is: Is it complex enough? Is it nuanced enough? Are people seeing that these weren't easy decisions to make?—not only in the reporting, but in the decisions about, for example, how does a U.S. company think about how they engage with China and sell into China at this time? "We've got factories in Xinjiang. We source cotton from Xinjiang. What should we think about these?"

I think just blasting these companies is too easy. You really want to try to put yourself in their shoes, in their positions, to understand the calculations they're making. Why are they making these decisions? What is happening every day? What are they hearing from their team in China?

I would like the reporting that I do or the team that I work does to get to the crux of the matter and ask the best questions, not moralize too much or condemn too easily, but to say: "I know they're complex. I may come down personally that this is a terrible thing to do, but I want to walk you through not only that they did this and it looks horrible, but the best part of that story may be why did that happen. Did they not do due diligence? Did they not see what was going on? Did the team on the ground lie to them?" We are going to have a story in the Wire this weekend about this very subject, which is, "Were you misled about what your company was doing in China?"

I think we all have to grapple with the ethical questions of: "Is your coverage of China balanced, fair, complex, and does it give your readers something to think about; or does it just stack up their stereotype? Is it I am just feeding the people who love to hate China more evidence so that they can hate China?" That is my week-to-week, day-to-day problem.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Thank you, David. I look forward to reading that story.

Megha, what about you?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: I'm coming at it from a different perspective, I think, than David because I don't really consider myself a "China reporter" anymore. My current role at BuzzFeed is on the investigations team, which essentially means that I just work on special projects.

The project that has consumed most of my time in the past couple of years has been the series that I mentioned on Xinjiang, which was essentially a series where we used a combination of interviews, documents, and satellite imagery analysis to assess the scope and scale of the mass internment program in Xinjiang.

We have also written about other aspects of government policies there targeting Muslim minorities including forced labor, curbs on reproductive rights, and a lot of other things.

I have definitely given a lot of thought to this. In the time that I have been covering Xinjiang, which has been quite a while, the tone of discourse about China in the United States has changed a lot. When I started covering Xinjiang, the current iteration of policies in Xinjiang, which started around 2016–2017, this was the issue that all of the foreign journalists in China were always talking about. It was like this thing where you couldn't get readers to pay attention. It was like a fringe issue about this group of people, the Uyghurs, who nobody knew existed.

Since then it has become a huge issue. Several governments, including the United States, have labeled the policy as genocide. It has attracted international sanctions and contributed to the U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Olympics. So it has become this huge issue, and I guess in that time I have become more conscious of whether reporting would play into some preconceived narratives about China and demonizing China, which is of course something we wouldn't want.

There are certain things that I think all reporters can do better on China. One is, for instance, not using the construction "the Chinese." There are word choices and things at the line level you can do better. I try to do all of those things, but I try to frame my reporting and my role in a really narrow way.

I see our team's work on this issue as kind of a diagnosis of a problem. It is reporting facts on the ground. Pretty much everyone we interviewed for that series lived in China until a few years ago, so it has relied on people who are actually experiencing these policies.

I think for the first piece we published we had more than 200 locations that we had global positioning system coordinates for and we made sure that Chinese authorities had access to all of those and had all the time in the world to respond to it, which they did. I think that is really important.

It is very tough because you don't want to contribute to an unfair characterization of the government in China as in service of some other policy goal that some policymakers in the United States might have, but I also feel that it would be really wrong to hold back in any way on coverage of something that is one of the world's worst human rights atrocities.

I have to see it through that lens. I feel like I can't really judge coverage on whether it's positive or negative, pro-China or anti-China. I think, as David said, the important metric is really complexity and being able to say not just this is a government policy but that there are other things happening here.

There is chaos at the local level. There are some aspects of these policies that are enforced by different authorities within Xinjiang. There are dynamics with Han Chinese people who live in the region. There are dynamics between Uyghurs and people of other ethnic backgrounds who live in the region, and it has created this enormously complex situation. I think being able to illustrate a lot of that nuance has helped the coverage be a little bit less flat.

BAY FANG: Can I jump in? I just wanted to reiterate how important Megha's coverage of the Xinjiang issue has been. Her team did it in conjunction with our sister organization, Open Technology Fund, and recently won a Pulitzer, so congratulations on that.

I wanted to pull back a little bit and say I totally agree with everything you guys have talked about. I think it is a matter of understanding the complexity.

For us, we have consciously changed the coverage that Radio Free Asia does. In the past we were known as being the ones who always would be talking about human rights issues, and coverage of dissidents was our thing, especially in the Mandarin service; but we have recently realized that we want to reach the post-Tiananmen generation, the people who were born after Tiananmen Square, some of whom don't even know what happened then, and many of whom are actually Mandarin speakers around the world, not just inside China. They are not so interested in the straight human rights issues.

We wanted to give them a perspective. These are people who know there is a whole world and different perspectives out there on issues that really affect them—the economy, health, their own finances—so we actually started something called "Wai Nao?"—in English it's "Why Not?" but in Chinese it's "Wai Nao?"—which is a slanted perspective, slanted brain. The idea is to give them a different perspective on the news around them.

This is a purely digital brand. There have been studies over the past few years that show that Chinese students in the States are the one foreign student population who actually become more nationalistic about China and more anti-American the longer they stay in the United States, which is very counter to what you would assume. A lot of that is because the news that they consume is this bubble of Chinese social media that is still very much controlled and censored.

In this new brand, we do stories that are much more interesting to this population. We created the first animated political satire in Mandarin on which we worked with a team in Taiwan. We did a feature that won a prize recently about LGBTQ issues, which is something that isn't really talked about in China.

Stuff like that I feel is important. It is not only just to make sure that there is a nuanced view of China but also to have credibility, because you're not just hammering away on certain issues but taking a holistic view of what people might be interested in.

ISAAC STONE FISH: All of you have brilliantly used data in your reporting, which is incredibly important when you're doing it outside of China. I wonder if you could speak about some of the ethical concerns about data journalism that aren't present in regular journalism.

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: I can start. I am not sure if there is too much about this that is different in China versus anything else, but obviously I think you have to be sure that the data you are analyzing is representative of whatever it is that you are trying to ascertain, that you are not cherry-picking.

I find it really helpful to have benchmarks. For instance, when we were doing the Xinjiang project, there was a question that came up. We were looking at the size of some of the new camps that were being built at the time, and some of them were really massive. There was one called Dabancheng, which is near the regional capital, which is like the size of Central Park geographically. I was like, Oh, my god, this is huge!

Then the question came up: Well, are there prisons like this in the States? It turns out that yes there are really big prisons. That doesn't mean that the two things are comparable. One of them houses people who are detained for no reason and without paperwork or any due process, so that is already different. But, but just in terms of the language that we used about the size, that helped shape that. I think it's important not to look at things like numbers in isolation but to have points of comparison.

The other thing I would say is in China there is a lot of government data that has never really been that reliable and was never that reliable but was portrayed in the media as being an authoritative source. When I see a lot written in the press about data on COVID-19 numbers and stuff not necessarily being reliable, that is a very hard one because it is government data. It is indicative of something. It doesn't mean that we don't use the data, but it's good in some cases to contextualize it.

For instance, the way we would normally get information about something like police investigating a terrorist incident or something like that in China is we might send somebody there, but chances are it would be completely cleaned up and reporters would be immediately barred from interviewing anyone, so really the information would come from China Central Television or another state media outlet. That doesn't mean that you don't use the information, but I think you have to make it clear to the reader that this is what the Chinese police are saying, this is not what we found out, and Chinese police are not necessarily always reliable. I think that sort of stuff is important as context.

DAVID BARBOZA: Can I add something, which is a totally different part of this angle, which is thinking about gathering data in China, when to actually publish your data and how much to give away about where you get that data from? As a journalist, obviously you want for your readers—and I have always wanted them—to be transparent about the process: Where does my data come from? How did I get it? Did anyone give it to me? Did I vet it?—all of those things that you would do in the normal course of reporting, but in China you do worry.

For years, every story I worked on I have said, "Okay, let's screenshot this from the webpage because it may be taken down tomorrow." That happens a lot in China. It actually happened in the last couple of days on a story we're working on.

You have to think about getting the data and also about preserving the data in case the Chinese government or someone else takes it down and whether those sites that you use or those sources of data that you use are then shut off.

I have to say when I worked on my investigation into the wealth of the prime minister's relatives, we realized that as soon as we published this they are going to shut down all these records. They could take us to court. Do we have copies of everything? Can we ship that out of China so that in case I am detained we would have a copy of those records?

I think a lot of reporting around data and sourcing in China are the same questions you would ask anywhere, except you have to factor in that this is the Chinese government and the way they react to you publishing is going to be very different from another government. So you have to have a different strategy in preserving what you get.

In trying to make a determination of "Do I want to release this now?"—and I'm sure Megha can talk about in her case with BuzzFeed—maybe they decided to hold off on showing certain evidence or documents so that they could continue to get that stream of evidence. You probably know that this happens a lot.

For instance, in the case where The New York Times was being hacked by China, The New York Times discovered that they were under attack and being hacked, including getting into my emails, but they didn't tell me, believe it or not, until very late, until a reporter from my own paper called me and said, "David, do you want to comment on your being hacked?" and I'm like, "What are you talking about?"

The Times decided not to reveal that immediately. Part of the reason may have been—I think they should have told me immediately—that the Times had a firm that was watching the hackers, trying to confirm that it was the Chinese authorities. If you read David Sanger's book, they actually turned the cameras on the hackers and could see them live doing the hacking and could share information with me on the ground about where they thought that facility was, and then I would go out and drive by and see if that could be a People's Liberation Army facility.

There are times when you don't want to reveal too much too early. You are gathering information, you are thinking about the reaction; but there are all these ethical questions about how you investigate, how you gather data, how you vet data, how you publish data, and how do you tell the reader, "This is how I got the data, but I don't actually want to tell you everything because it could compromise my data source or the people who gave it to me or the way I am investigating this case?"

BAY FANG: Not much to add. I think I agree everything that Megha and David said.

I do think that data journalism is going to be more and more important the less access foreign journalists get inside China. Like Megha using satellite imagery in her report, we have been using a lot of satellite imagery in our coverage of the South China Sea. I do think what David said about being transparent about your sources and being smart about how you dole out the information is really important.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Megha, you brought up a fascinating point comparing the size of the prison in Xinjiang to one in the United States. A lot of times when I have these conversations with people, they will say, "Well, yes, but the United States has a terrible prison system" or "But, yes, the United States has a major racial problem." How do you address this rhetorically when people bring this up with the reporting that you do in Xinjiang or other areas?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: I don't know. It's a good question. I do hear people say stuff like that. I think it's a boring line of argument.

I guess it depends on what the context of the conversation is. Comparisons between countries are definitely legitimate in some contexts, but usually if someone is saying something like that, they are essentially arguing this isn't that big a deal. I think that is empirically not true.

If we had a situation where 10 percent of the Muslim population in the United States was being dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night with a sack over their heads and sent to internment camps, there would be a public outcry; this would be a huge deal if it happened in Europe, the United States, Canada, or anywhere. So why is it okay if it happens in China? That doesn't make any sense to me.

Obviously, no one is saying that mass incarceration and racial discrimination in the United States shouldn't receive coverage. I don't think anyone is arguing that. The people who are making these arguments are also not suggesting that. I think it may be a tactic to try to minimize the issues in China, which I find to be really strange.

I spent most of my 20s in China and I have a really deep affection for the country. If you are a person who cares a lot about a particular place, you want it to be better. You want things like mass atrocities to not happen there. I would never want mass atrocities to happen in the United States, of course not. I feel sort of the same way about it.

I think a lot of it is written off as "whataboutism." It sort of depends on what the motivation of the person is who is advancing that line of inquiry, whether they are saying it in a rhetorical way or not. But I do feel like comparisons in some cases can be legitimate and are legitimate as well.

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think this has been a fascinating conversation.

As Megha was saying, she spent most of her 20s in Beijing. I did as well. As a final question, I am wondering: The situation in China has changed so drastically since we were all there, would you recommend someone in their early 20s getting their start in journalism to move to China today or not?

Bay, let's start with you with that one.

BAY FANG: That's a really good question.

I have to say no, I wouldn't. I learned so much from starting as a reporter in China for U.S. News & World Report and I had so much freedom as a foreign correspondent. I think it would be a completely different job now, especially if you're starting out there.

As we talked about at the very beginning of this conversation, a lot of it would be about learning the lines of what you can do and what you can't do. Unfortunately, even though we have all established how important it is to have eyes on the ground and people who are getting the nuance of a country, I think the more restrictions that have been put on reporters there just make it so difficult to actually get that real picture.

I would say if you are a cub reporter, go somewhere where you can actually explore more and talk to more people, and then maybe as a more seasoned reporter go back to China.

ISAAC STONE FISH: David, what about you?

DAVID BARBOZA: I agree with most of what Bay said, but I would encourage them to go, knowing that this is going to be a very different circumstance.

Also, I would be more worried about their editors guiding them, taking advantage of them, or putting them in the wrong position. We have been reluctant to have someone reporting for us from China because of the security risks, even if they do nothing, and what could happen.

I think always having people on the ground of different age groups and seeing it for themselves—maybe there is an area—for instance, it's a very different circumstance, but let's say even science coverage in China could be something that I have always wanted to do and encouraged The Times to do, asking, "Why don't we have a science reporter there or a health reporter or an environmental reporter?" I wouldn't say we don't want a political reporter or we don't want an investigative reporter, but what about having additional reporters for these other areas, to bring a group of people in their 20s, people in their 30s, people in their 40s, mix it up, and sometimes amazing things can happen? There are parts of China that we thought were closed or where it wasn't possible to report, but someone in their 20s might be daring enough to do that.

Of course, it is not easy to go to China in your 20s. What new organization is going to easily say: "You're there. How is your Chinese skill?" If you're a foreign face, it's harder than if you're a Chinese face.

So there are lots of complexities, but I would want to encourage people of all ages who are interested in journalism to take a stab at that, but really choosing your editor right and being warned about what are the risks involved. I would have a little different conclusion.

ISAAC STONE FISH: What do you think, Megha?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: I would say definitely yes. They would not have as much fun now as I think the three of us probably had because it's so much harder to report, but, as David pointed out, there is a lot of stuff you can report about. Science is a great one. I would love to read more on advances in DNA research and CRISPR that are coming out of China. I think that kind of stuff is really fascinating. It is completely under-covered. The environment is another one. There is a whole range of subjects where you could actually get some access and talk to people and go and see things in China. Manufacturing is another one.

I would say yes, with the caveat of if you speak Chinese or are willing to learn it, because it can be really frustrating—even though there are really good reporters who don't speak any Chinese, I think it is harder and less fun probably not to do your own interviewing; I would say if you do not have family in the People's Republic of China that you would be concerned about; and, most importantly, if you can get a credential.

I hear from a lot of young journalists or people who want to become journalists and who want to go to China and start reporting. I think that's insane. You should not do that. You should try to go in with a news organization, get a proper credential, and protect yourself and your colleagues to the greatest extent possible. I think that's the right way to do it.

ISAAC STONE FISH: This is a good place for us to wrap up. This has been a really fascinating conversation. I want to thank Carnegie Council for hosting this. I am excited that we are kicking off the Boundary series with such a chat.

Megha, Bay, and David, thank you for your time and insight and all the work that you do. I am looking forward to trying it again soon.

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