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Censorship in China, with BuzzFeed's Megha Rajagopalan

March 11, 2019

China Media Group headquarters, Beijing. CREDIT: 杨志强Zhiqiang (CC)

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Megha Rajagopalan. Megha is the former Buzzfeed News bureau chief in Beijing, China. She is still with Buzzfeed but now based in Tel Aviv.

Megha, thanks so much for coming by Carnegie Council.

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: Thanks so much for having me.

DEVIN STEWART: First of all, thank you for coming from Tel Aviv and visiting us in New York.

Right here on the table I'm holding a New York Times article that's entitled "China Forces Out Buzzfeed Journalist" and dated August 23, 2018. The article is about you. 

You were reporting and operating in Beijing for six years. Tell us about the story of being forced out of China. What did you learn, and what was the experience like?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: It's not like somebody showed up at my door and took me to the airport and said, "Get out of here." The way these things work is that people renew their visas usually once a year. In my case, it would have been twice a year. I had applied for a new visa, and they denied that request.

To this day it has not been made clear to me why that happened. I think lots of people have written about it and drawn their own conclusions, but for me personally I still can't really say. There's no proof that it was about something I wrote or something I did or something I said. It's just something that happened very unexpectedly.

DEVIN STEWART: Looking back at that experience, what's your emotional takeaway? Was it fairly smooth as a process, or was it a bit abrupt?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: It was pretty devastating. I moved to China when I was in my early 20s. I spent a lot of formative years there. I basically learned to be a journalist there. I have a deep, deep affection for the country and the people and spent a lot of time learning Chinese. To have to leave in that kind of circumstance was really devastating, I have to say.

DEVIN STEWART: You mention that some of the press is drawing its own conclusions about your story. Are those conclusions accurate? In other words, how would you describe the coverage of your own story?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: I've been working as a journalist in China since around 2012, and in that time there were quite a few people who lost their visas in similar situations to mine. I think in every single one of those cases there was a fair amount of informed and also uninformed speculation about why that should be the case. The reality is you're never going to get 100 percent proof that it was because of a certain thing that you wrote.

I think about Melissa Chan, who is a good friend of mine who works for Al Jazeera and was thrown out a few years ago. At the time, people were saying it was because of her reporting on black jails. She had done a bunch of really controversial work. She had done pieces from Tiananmen Square on the anniversary of the massacre, basically showing people in the street images of Tank Man. She hadn't shied away from controversy. But in the end when she lost her visa it's my belief it was a confluence of factors. It wasn't just her work. It might have been unhappiness at Al Jazeera, it might have been something to do with her, something to do with something she said.

I think it's a deliberate ambiguity that's maintained by the government. They want to maintain plausible deniability, and I don't think what happened to me was any exception to that.

DEVIN STEWART: Given the fact that as you just said it's difficult to pinpoint the precise rationale or reasoning, whether it was a legal reason or political reason or whatever manifestations were happening within the government or the officials who made the decision, are there any lessons that you can take away from the experience itself in terms of how it was handled, how you handled it, but also advice for other journalists who want to cover China?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: Since it happened I've gotten emails and calls from lots of journalists who are not based there but want to visit and do stories. A lot of people have asked me, "To what extent do I need to self-censor?" Maybe not in those words, but basically what are the lines. This is a very normal kind of conversation that journalists would have anywhere.

Again, coming back to this notion of ambiguity, there are no hard lines. You can't ever know for sure that if I write about X I will be thrown out, and if I don't write about X, I will get to stay. It just doesn't work like that. I think that that's deliberate. It gets people to self-censor.

Obviously, there have been well-documented cases of news organizations self-censoring in China, notably the stuff that happened with Bloomberg a few years ago with their investigation of the illicit wealth of the elites of the Communist Party. I just think that the government uses every tool in its arsenal to get us to do that. It's not worth it because you can't predict, so yes, I would say that.

I guess from a career standpoint I would just say keep a suitcase packed and don't put all your eggs in one basket because there are lots of people who devote their lives and their careers to becoming China experts, and it can be devastating to lose access to the country in that sort of circumstance.

DEVIN STEWART: Being effectively censored in China for covering censorship in China has a ring of irony to it. But before we get to actual censorship, looking back on the six years give us a picture: What's going on? Where is China heading? Maybe what are some of the big forces at work in terms of understanding the direction of society there?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: That's a good question. I arrived as Xi Jinping was coming to power. I arrived at the eve of the 18th Party Congress, when he took power.

DEVIN STEWART: What was the year?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: That was 2012.

Because of that I don't really have the ability to compare it with the Hu Jintao era. But hearing from my colleagues who had covered Hu Jintao and stayed through the Xi Jinping years I think the overall trend has been one of more closed-ness, less friendliness to the outside world, more censorship, less tolerance for things like media and civil society, less tolerance certainly for foreign companies, and I think that is continuing, unfortunately.

Let me think about an example. For instance, in China there is a number of think tanks that are linked to the state in various ways.

DEVIN STEWART: China has one of the biggest populations of think tanks in the world apparently, according to some studies.

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: I believe it. There are just piles of them.

People who work at think tanks are in the position of advising the government on various policies. There was a time when it was easy for journalists to call up academics like that and get their take. Even though access to government officials is pretty hard in China, you would be able to get a read on things happening in the country by using that methodology.

I remember, I think either in 2013 or 2014, I had a meeting with a young guy who was an up-and-coming scholar at a think tank. The meeting went well. We had a good chat, and I was like, "Oh, it would be great if we could keep in touch."

He was like, "We can keep in touch, but I'm not allowed to give you my business card because you're a foreign national." I thought it was really strange. He was like, "Oh, but you can add my WeChat."

It's one of those things. It's a situation where all of the incentives for people are not to engage with foreign journalists and academics.

DEVIN STEWART: It puts you at risk.

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, it puts you at risk. And even if it doesn't put you at risk, it might damage your chances for promotion. What are you really going to gain? I think because of that it impoverished our ability to collect information.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have a sense of how that control is executed? Think tank people, for example. Who's the authority that implements the preference, for example, of not being in touch with a foreign national?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: That's a good question. I think it depends case by case, for sure. It has never entirely been clear to me whether there's a centralized mechanism for doing that. My guess is that there isn't.

DEVIN STEWART: It's like a veiled a threat or something?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: It's like playing telephone. The incentive is to be more conservative in what you do. Even if there's a tiny chance that what you're doing is going to get you in trouble, why would you take that risk? You have to have a really good reason to be speaking to a foreign journalist.

DEVIN STEWART: This source suggested WeChat, which is thought to be monitored. Is that a correct description? In some of the American media the depiction is like a mass surveillance state. If you're using WeChat, this sort of Chinese platform, then you're basically talking to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: Right. It's a good question.

There are a number of reports now about people who have said things in private groups on WeChat and then gotten a call from their local police department. It's hard to say what prompts these things because it can be an analog thing, it can be somebody else in the group just ratted you out. But it could also be surveillance. We don't really know.

DEVIN STEWART: When you got the suggestion from your source to go on WeChat what was your inclination of "Why is that okay?"

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: It's not true anymore, but when this happened—that would have been 2013, 2014—WeChat wasn't super-new, but it was pretty new, and it was perceived as this more informal means of communication. It was a way to talk to people that wasn't like email, where there would be a paper trail and stuff like that. I think a lot of people used it in that way.

Of course, we knew that it wasn't secure, but I don't think a lot of people were thinking in these terms, like, Oh, it's being monitored constantly, kind of thing. Like these stories about people getting hauled in for things they said on WeChat are fairly new. I think they've popped up maybe in the last year or two, so that might not have been on people's radar back then.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you feel like that's the direction WeChat is heading into, becoming a tool to enforce social control?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, definitely.

I talked to Tibetan activists a couple of years ago. There used to be this problem in the Tibetan exile community where they would get phishing attacks all the time. He was telling me they would go to conferences, and somebody he was at the conference with would get an email purporting to be from him. This would happen all the time.

He said, "This isn't happening anymore."

I was like, "Well, why?"

He was like, "Well, I don't think it's a lack of interest in the Tibetan exile community." He didn't know, but he suspected that if you're talking to everybody on WeChat anyway, why do they need to phish you? They already have everything that you're saying.

DEVIN STEWART: Are you on WeChat?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: I am, but I keep it segregated on another phone.

DEVIN STEWART: On another phone, a burn phone?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: Yes.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you get the sense that people you communicate with on WeChat are who they purport to be?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: That's a good question. Most of the people I communicate with on WeChat I've gotten their WeChat from meeting them in real life, or they've been introduced via WeChat by a mutual friend, so that's not something I usually worry about.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's look at the issue of censorship. I think that should be the major theme of this discussion. By the way, this is part of an ongoing series that we're doing called Information Warfare, this podcast series, which has been wonderful to host.

First, looking at the outcome or the result of being told at a think tank that you shouldn't talk to foreigners, let's look at that first. I suppose the merit from the authorities' perspective is that this is a way to keep control of ideas, dangerous ideas, dangerous relationships, or risky relationships.

Is there a downside do you think to preventing people from talking to one another? Think tanks are supposed to be thinking; they're supposed to be exposed to ideas. What do you think about that?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: I think it creates an echo chamber, which is not ideal. It's actively preventing new ideas from coming into the system from places that are perceived to be dangerous or anti-state or whatever. I don't think ultimately that's good for Chinese policy-making.

There are lots of examples of Chinese policies that have benefited from consultation with policy experts who are based overseas, around less sensitive issues. Anti-smoking legislation is one that comes to mind, lots of issues around health. Those sectors of the government have been a little more open. It's disappointing that other parts of the government aren't like that.

DEVIN STEWART: One of the schools of thought about China in the West or in the United States is that this crushing of the free flow of ideas, closing up society, and essentially reducing the number of freedoms that society enjoys could result in stagnation or, in the case that you were talking about just now, maybe you'd call it fragility.

Can you tell me what you think about that hypothesis? As we talked about before the podcast just a few minutes ago, predicting the future of China is a fool's errand. You have to weigh the evidence and form hypotheses every couple of years or so and refine them and modify them. Where do you come on that debate?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: It's an interesting question. Let me think about this.

I don't want to predict the future because it doesn't make sense. I think the calculus in China has often been that there is a decline in individual freedom, people don't have the ability to go out and protest or read an independent media or form civil society groups and things like that, but the economy is growing, the economy is stable.

That's a very simplistic way to explain it because, of course, there are lots of dimensions to the economic situation in China. You have wealth disparity; you have the hukou system, which urgently needs to be reformed; you have state-owned enterprises (SOEs); you have unemployment. You have all these factors or pain points in the economy that regular people have to deal with, but by and large I think the larger point that you're probably doing better than your parents' generation has made it such that people aren't out demonstrating in the streets trying to take down their government, which to me makes a lot of sense.

One of the things I've learned covering China is that this is a huge, complex country. Human beings everywhere don't necessarily get upset about stuff or want to create change unless they're being directly impacted. I think that's true for a lot of things in China. You see what's happening in Xinjiang to the Uyghurs, more than a million people in internment camps. Yes, that information is censored in the local media, but most people don't know who Uyghurs are, or they may know who Uyghurs are, but they've never met a Uyghur person. It feels very far away to them. Same thing with Tibetans, same thing with people like migrant workers and the poor. It's hard to get people to care about these kinds of issues. I think that remains true today. I think a big part of it is lack of access to information, but I think it also goes beyond that.

DEVIN STEWART: The idea that as long as things appear to be superficially getting better—there's development, there's jobs, you're better off than your parents were—the encroachment on your human rights, for example, which maybe hardly anyone thinks about in their day-to-day life, as long as they're not apparent to people, then do you think stability can be maintained for the time being? I'm trying to paraphrase.

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: It depends on how you define "stability," I think. If you mean the stability of the overall system where the CCP stays in power in pretty much the same form that it currently is, I guess for me personally as a journalist I haven't observed anything to suggest that there are movements within China that want to completely change their system of government.

I think pretty much everybody wants reforms of some kind, either one way or the other. A lot of people want the government to ease up on certain things, including things like speech and the media and stuff like that.

You also have to remember in China now, the instability of the Mao era is something that people still remember. If you're in your 20s and 30s, that's something that happened to your parents. I don't think people would ever want to go back to something like that.

The other side of this is the growing nationalism that we see in China. A lot of people feel proud, understandably, of their country and all that it has achieved in terms of economic growth, it's geopolitical stature, and all that stuff.

DEVIN STEWART: I think it's conventional wisdom that the growing nationalism in China is a convenient tool for the government also to maintain some control. Do you buy that interpretation? Or is it a grassroots, spontaneous—

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: No, it's not grassroots, for sure. There are probably aspects of it that are grassroots. I don't want to say that nobody feels that in their heart. I'm sure many, many people do, and nationalism is certainly not unique to China at all, but it's certainly something that the CCP has tried to promote, particularly in the Xi Jinping era.

DEVIN STEWART: Did you come across The Economist article that pointed out that Chinese are relatively unhappy compared to other developing countries, other big countries?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: No, I don't think I saw that, actually.

DEVIN STEWART: It was pretty recent, and it seems to gel with other happiness studies. People I guess could point to things like pollution or the lack of certain freedoms.

Having lived in China, does the proposition that the Chinese are sadder than other prosperous countries ring true with your experience on the street and living there and talking to a lot of people?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: It's hard to generalize, of course. I think it's very hard to live there, especially if you're in a big city. People struggle to pay the rent, make sure their kids have access to a better life, all that kind of basic stuff. Income inequality is a huge issue in China.

We talk a lot about human rights, but in general people in China care about more immediate things, which is totally understandable, things like police corruption, the environment, whether their kids have access to clean water and clean milk and all that sort of stuff.

DEVIN STEWART: Tainted foods and so forth.

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. I think those things have damaged trust in institutions in the society. Perhaps that's a source of some of the unhappiness.

It's hard. China has huge cities. Everybody will be familiar with the kind of bystander effect, which I think is very much a phenomenon in all huge cities, including Chinese cities. It can be a cold and lonely existence, I think, if you're a person who doesn't come from those places or if you're not a person of means.

DEVIN STEWART: Alienating?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: It can be I think to some people, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: You've written a lot about censorship in China. How does it work, and what do you think the effects of it are? Are there any positive ones? Certainly, there is a lot of garbage and fake news in our media that is maybe toxic in American politics and American rhetoric and discourse, particularly if you're on Twitter, which both of us are. But certainly, that's a very microcosm of the actual society. Twitter doesn't really represent almost anything.

I guess my question is: What do you make of the current state of censorship in China right now? How is it being implemented, and what are the impacts?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: That's a good question.

Yes, I think by all accounts the censorship has gotten a lot heavier since 2012, when Xi Jinping took power. That goes for both traditional media as well as social media. The government has made efforts to crack down on what people are saying in social media. They passed an anti-rumor legislation [in 2013]. I've heard people praise it now, saying they were ahead of their time because of the whole fake news discussion we're having now.

But to my mind, there's no legal process in a lot of these situations. It's not necessarily a good-faith effort to reduce content that's causing damage to social stability or whatever. I think more often than not it's content that's critical of somebody in a position of power. There are so many examples of that.

Is there anything positive about this? To my mind, no, because I'm a journalist, I'm a person who believes that ideas should be out there. We can talk about which ideas deserve platforms and which don't, but I don't think that's a decision that should be made in conjunction with a government, and that's the system that's in place in China.

DEVIN STEWART: Finally, Megha, looking at how you would describe the Chinese regime, if you will, today. You've talked about it being similar to a police state in some of your lectures. You've also mentioned the phrase "digital authoritarianism."  There are a lot of these hybrid categories that have been proposed out there.

If someone isn't able to travel to China all the time or have access to field research or on-the-ground interviews, how would you explain the type of society and regime it is or is becoming particularly with those two lenses, the digital authoritarianism and the police state part?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: I've reported a lot on Xinjiang, which is a big region in the west of China where Turkic Muslims live. They're an ethnic minority group there, including the Uyghurs.

What's happening in Xinjiang are two separate phenomena that are also linked. One is the rise of mass surveillance through things like facial recognition technology, algorithmic policing, DNA databases, all this new technology to monitor what people are doing.

The second thing is mass internment. We're talking about upward of a million people who have been interned. To my mind, that's a direct consequence of the surveillance.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you thread that a little tighter there? It's a direct consequence in what way?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: For instance, the ostensible purpose of these internment camps is to de-radicalize people. That's what the government would say. First of all, they would say it's occupational training and essentially to de-radicalize people. They view Turkic Muslims as either terrorists or at risk of becoming terrorists. That's the stated purpose of the camps.

So how do you know who needs to be de-radicalized? One of the things that they've been doing for years, for Uyghurs who live in places in Xinjiang, who live in ordinary apartment complexes or something like that, someone from the local Communist Party bureau, the neighborhood bureau, will stop by on a weekly basis and ask a bunch of questions, check for religious books, check for things like prayer mats and stuff like that.

They'll also do things more recently, like if you are at a checkpoint—which there are many now—on the side of the highway or if you run into a police officer on the side of the road, they'll either plug your phone into a device that pulls the data out or they'll manually scroll through your WeChat texts and your multimedia files to look for things. They call it "extremist content," but in practice it can be things like Arab pop songs, a photograph of a mosque, or anything like that. This is used as ammunition to say, "Okay, this person needs to go to an internment camp."

I'm often asked, "Is this the future in China?" I think the answer to that is no because it is so extreme. The only reason they're even able to do it now is because it's a minority group, and it's also a minority group that the government has spent decades brainwashing people to believe is hostile to the country and is a bunch of terrorists and whatever. They're able to do that without a lot of widespread public pushback.

There are also less extreme uses of that same kind of technology in other parts of China, for instance, facial recognition and things like that, cellphone surveillance, of course, and algorithmic policing. Certainly, police departments across China are now starting to use this stuff. A lot of this is being built by homegrown Chinese tech companies, and they're selling it to law enforcement authorities within China, and they're also selling it overseas.

There are different schools of thought on this. Some people would say it's not new that China is an authoritarian country; it's not new that they want to spy on people. They've been doing this since the Cultural Revolution.

But to my mind, I think what this technology has done is augment the power of the government to be able to do this in a lot more efficient ways. They haven't achieved all of the efficiency that they perhaps seek, but it has certainly enabled them to do things that they probably wish they could have done earlier, shutting down ways that people would find each other and communicate, shutting down things like social groups, and stuff like that. It's already been really, really impactful, I think.

DEVIN STEWART: Megha Rajagopalan, thank you so much for coming by Carnegie Council in New York and informing us about the current state in China. Good luck to Buzzfeed, and good luck to you.

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you so much.

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