After news assistants arrest, Chinese employees of foreign media on mainland express concerns

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Originally published by SCMP on October 15, 2014

Chinese employees of foreign media organisations on the mainland said they were no stranger to pressure and fear imposed by authorities following the arrest of a Chinese woman who was working as a news assistant for a German newspaper and helped report on stories related to Hong Kong’s Occupy movement.

Zhang Miao, 40, was assisting the chief China correspondent for the Hamburg-based weekly Die Zeit, one of the most widely read German newspapers. The publication said last Thursday that Zhang was detained on October 2 by the police on the charge of “inciting public discontent”, Reuters reported.

“I felt a bit panic when I first heard this because anybody like us could be next, but later I realised that I have been living in the shadow since the first day I took the job,” a Chinese news assistant for a foreign media company in the capital, who preferred not to reveal his identity, told the South China Morning Post.

He said the national security officers would “have tea” with the news assistants now and then to “let us know that they are watching”.

“We might have been branded as traitors for the government and some people even though we believe the things we do here are helping to make this country a better place,” he said.

Another Chinese employee in the Beijing office of an overseas media company said she felt troubled by the frequent meetings with the national security authorities, which had influenced her private life.

“Of course [I] have worries. I also feel helpless,” she said, “Compared to foreign correspondents who might face the worse consequence of being kicked out of the country, we may lose more. [I could] often feel the fear in my heart.”

She said she heard from others in the Chinese news assistant circle that Zhang’s arrest might be related to her participation in an event organised by Beijing artists in support of the Hong Kong protests, but not because of her reporting work.

The Voice of America reported that a group of artists were organising a poetry reading session in Beijing’s Songzhuang arts district in support of the Occupy movement in Hong Kong. Authorities detained at least seven people who planned to join the activity on October 2, and Zhang was one of them.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday that Zhang was working for the publication without official approval and was suspected of “causing a disturbance”, a common charge against detained activists and dissidents in mainland China.

The ministry’s statement came after Germany expressed concern about the arrest last Friday, describing it as “worrying news for the German government” and expecting “the accusations to be cleared up quickly”.

In response, the ministry’s spokesman, Hong Lei, said on Monday that Zhang was detained on suspicion of being involved “in activities that caused a disturbance”, and she failed to obtain a Chinese employee status at the German media’s Beijing office in accordance with Chinese regulations, theGlobal Times reported.

“The person [Zhang] is a Chinese citizen. [She] should assume the obligations as a Chinese citizen and cooperate with the investigation of the public security authorities,” Zhang said.

Chinese authorities are now handling the case according to the rules, he said.

According to the regulations posted on the Foreign Ministry’s website , foreign media organisations’ permanent offices in China can hire Chinese citizens to do “auxiliary work”, but only through “organisations providing services to foreign nationals” that are “designated by the Foreign Ministry or the foreign affairs offices of the local people’s governments entrusted by the Foreign Ministry”.

The German foreign ministry said the German embassy in Beijing was “in touch with Chinese authorities on the matter” and was “trying to ensure Zhang would be able to continue her work”, the report said.

More than 40 people, including artists and activists, have been detained on the mainland in the last two weeks for supporting the universal suffrage protests in Hong Kong, according to the US-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Agence France-Presse reported.

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