At a 2014 summit meeting with then-president Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping said “China, recognizing the people’s legitimate rights of freedom of expression and other freedoms, protects the interests of journalistic institutions in accordance with the law.” Did he really mean what he said?
Last week, a Sankei Shimbun reporter was denied entry to a press conference held by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang following the close of the National People’s Congress in Beijing. The press conference is essentially the only opportunity that foreign journalists have to ask questions directly to members of Chinese leadership. The event happens once a year, and Sankei Shimbun has always attended. Citing a “capacity crowd,” the National People’s Congress officials this year refused to provide the Sankei Shimbun with the letter of invitation necessary to attend. This despite the fact that multiple letters of invitation were issued to many other newspapers for the event, and also that the auditorium where the press conference was held was not filled to capacity at all—there were empty seats.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the intention behind shutting reporters out of press conferences is to impose controls and restrictions on the free press. We strenuously protest. The freedoms to speak, report, conduct interviews, and gather information are universal values which prevail throughout the world. No matter how one looks at China’s attempts to hinder journalists in their work, they cannot be considered actions worthy of a “responsible great power.”
In September 1967, the Sankei Shimbun Beijing bureau chief, Minoru Shibata, was expelled from the People’s Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution. From that time until the reopening of a China office in September of 1998—fully 31 years—the Sankei Shimbun was forbidden from keeping any reporters stationed in the PRC.
The reestablishment of a Sankei presence in China was to increase understanding among the people of both China and Japan. Part of that increased understanding also includes criticism, which must be permitted to flow in both directions.
The people of China and the people of Japan may differ in their perspectives on, and views of, historical consciousness and national security. The Sankei’s reporting is grounded in Japanese values, and reflects Japan’s national interest. This goes without saying—the Sankei Shimbun is a Japanese newspaper company, and as such we are guaranteed complete freedom of expression, just like every other institution and individual in Japan.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, speaking recently of universal values such as freedom of speech, respect for basic human rights, and the rule of law, said, quite rightly, that it is vital that every country abide by these universal principles.
The People’s Republic of China has repeatedly placed restrictions on foreign journalists by denying or delaying travel visas. The visa application of the head of the Sankei Shimbun’s China office was held up for more than three years until he was finally allowed to enter the country in September of 2016. Other reporters, such as those from the New York Times, have been denied visas outright, simply for reporting on the fact that some Chinese high officials have been enriching themselves while in office.
The Chinese government makes little, if any, effort to hide these retaliatory measures taken against those whose reporting does not follow the Party line. When Sankei Shimbun reporters were refused entry to Premier Li Keqiang’s press conference last week, this was simply another example of China’s heavy-handed suppression of free speech.
Japan and the People’s Republic of China will mark 45 years of normalized diplomatic relations this September. But the anniversary arrives with a question attached: as our relationship enters its maturity, how many universal values do we really have in common?