For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com
TAIPEI – In somewhat of an odd twist, reporters from autocratic mainland China grumble that democratic Taiwan gives them a hard time carrying out their trade. Rigid regulations imposed on them should be scrapped for the sake of a free flow of news across the Taiwan Strait, they say. But the Taiwanese authorities feel the complaints would be better addressed not to their letterbox but elsewhere.
Despite the spectacular cross-strait rapprochement of late, Beijing and Taipei have yet to give the nod for media outlets to set up offices on each other’s soil. So far Taiwan allows 10 mainland outlets to deploy five reporters each, but the rules say the journalists may be active on the island in a private capacity only.
Taiwan grants single-entry work permits spanning three months, which can be extended for another three months, but once this
second period is over, the journalists have to reapply on the mainland. Because that is a process taking weeks rather than days, instead of waiting for their employees’ visa issues to be sorted out, mainland news organizations often simply opt for replacing one journalist with another.
As the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) under Beijing’s State Council or cabinet, which is responsible for cross-strait policies including media exchanges, recently urged Taipei to give green light for the establishment of permanent press offices as soon as possible, mainland reporters simultaneously aired their grievances with the Taiwanese press. Besides the obvious difficulties in maintaining hard-earned ties with valuable sources, they say the major victim of the hectic come and go is reasonably housing. Because Taiwanese rental contracts for apartments normally cover at least a year, the mainland journalists are forced to stay in hotels. The mainland reporters Asia Times Online has come across in Taipei stayed in cheap no-tell ones in the city’s sleazier corners because of tight budgets.
It is not as if all mainland reporters active in Taiwan work for media that are as prominently affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the Xinhua news agency or People’s Daily. After a series of opening measures for cross-strait tourism that Taipei has been implementing since 2008, by now about 100,000 mainland tourists travel to the island per month, creating a rapidly growing demand for media productions that cater to the sector, such as TV travel shows, brochures and guidebooks. Tourism facilities scattered in every corner of the island have to be filmed, photographed and written about, which is obviously a time-consuming undertaking.
But mainland journalists who do cover more sensitive political issues can also claim to have good reasons to roam the island freely. Surrounding Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections in mid-January, they produced an unprecedented amount of information about the Taiwanese democratic system, which was then with surprising openness printed and aired all over the mainland. In effect for the first time in mainland China, democracy was portrayed as a viable option.
Taiwan grants reporters from places other than the mainland one-year multi-entry visas that they can extend indefinitely without leaving the island. International media organizations are welcomed with open arms, but while it is at first glance hard to see why Taipei treats journalists from across the strait so differently, the government says it has its reasons.
“China, rather than Taiwan, is to blame for creating the obstacles that have hindered press exchanges across the strait,” said Hua Shih-chieh, an official with Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), which is Taiwan’s counterpart to the TAO, as quoted by the local press. “China’s mass-media environment [with its Internet censorship and lack of press freedom ] is the core hindrance blocking cross-strait press exchanges.”
And MAC Deputy Minister Liu Te-shun made clear that change was not on the horizon. Liu ruled out that the next round of high-level negotiations between Taipei and Beijing to be held later this year would see discussions on the issue.
Reporters Without Borders’ 2011-12 Press Freedom Index puts Taiwan in 45th place and mainland China in 174th among 179 jurisdictions. Journalists and editorial boards active on the mainland painstakingly avoid crossing the CCP’s invisible red lines mainly by carrying out self-censorship.
There’s not much to indicate that Beijing has a much more liberal attitude concerning journalistic cross-strait exchanges. The very first glimpse at the TAO’s guide for Taiwanese reporters active on the mainland published on its official website provides a clue of what Mother China expects from cross-strait journalism. “These measures are formulated to … promote the peaceful reunification of the motherland,” Paragraph 1 reads.
Political scientists in Taipei warn that Taiwan should be wary. According to Tsai Chia-hung of National Chengchi University, Taiwan just has to look at the experiences of Hong Kong to see the dangers.
“They [mainland journalists] may become an agency of the Chinese government. If they stay in Taiwan long enough to get familiar with politicians and businesspeople, that may hurt [Taiwanese] national security,” Tsai said.
Lai I-chung, a member of the research body Taiwan Thinktank, shed more light on why it’s Beijing’s bureaucracy that deserves the blame, not Taipei’s.
“The three-month period per stay is for the principle of reciprocity because they also do the same thing to Taiwanese reporters stationed there,” Lai said.
He added that for his taste, mainland reporters had been wailing a bit too much, as in practice they can get visa extensions on and on and on. Mainland journalists Asia Times Online talked to in private agreed that reporters with Xinhua and People’s Daily managed this with ease.
“But the problem is with [the People’s Republic of] China,” Lai said. “The procedure for them to get permission from the PRC is more cumbersome than dealing with the Taiwanese authorities.”
It’s the TAO that decides who is allowed to report from Taiwan, and applications by journalists and editors to visit the island are sometimes rejected. In practice, mainland journalists still have the option to enter Taiwan via Hong Kong or a third country, but because in Taiwan agents on Beijing’s behalf reportedly monitor the media scene as well as foundations that invite mainland journalists, such bypassing of TAO regulations could bring repercussions back home.
The TAO tends to justify the turning down of applicants with the requirements imposed by its quota system, however.
Lai furthermore emphasized that the assertion often made by Beijing that its press contributes to advancing cross-strait understanding had to be taken with a very large pinch of salt.
“Chinese media sometimes do exactly the opposite,” he said. “Being friends with those reporters from China is one thing; what’s behind the media organizations they work for is quite another story.”