Just months after Chen Xu was posted to Gaza, the region descended into the worst violence seen there for years. It was early 2012, and the then-24-year-old photojournalist was on assignment for Xinhua News Agency when Israeli and Palestinian forces began exchanging airstrikes and rocket attacks.
“There were warships in the sea, F-16 fighters in the sky and Israeli tanks on the ground,” he recalls. “And they were all firing mortars and missiles into Gaza. I went to the window to check what was happening and saw a missile hit the ground within a kilometer, or even 500 meters, of my hotel.
“Fire climbed into the sky, and a heatwave pushed me five meters backwards. My window shattered and I remember feeling that my hair must be on fire. As I talk about it now, I can still feel that heat on my face.”
The proximity of danger was not always so palpable. But over four years spent in conflict zones – first in Gaza, then at Xinhua’s Baghdad bureau – Chen knew that it was never far away.
Photojournalist Chen Xu has completed stints in Gaza and, more recently, Baghdad
“There were a lot of suicide bombers and car explosions,” he says of his two-year stint in Iraq. “And you never know when the danger will come. I was living in the Mansour Hotel where, a few years earlier, a suicide bomber came into the lobby and blew himself up. Three floors were totally destroyed and more than 10 people died.”
Until the late 1990s, Chinese journalists were rarely found near war zones. State media’s international coverage was largely pieced together from translated Western sources, with overseas reporting limited to sports coverage. When two Beijing Youth Daily reporters traveled to Belgrade in 1999 to cover the infamous embassy bombing, it was the first time a commercial Chinese newspaper had sent correspondents to an overseas conflict.
But domestic appetite for international news is growing – and so is the government funding provided to report it. As Western media (both private news firms and public broadcasters like the BBC) face shrinking advertising revenues and budget cuts, Chinese media outlets are making their presence felt in hotspots around the world.
Since 2008, the Chinese Government has embarked on a soft-power drive that has substantially expanded the presence of the country’s media overseas. Xinhua now has over 180 foreign bureaus, just 20 fewer than both Reuters and Agence France-Presse (AFP). State broadcaster CCTV now has over 70 bureaus in six languages, and newspapers from People’s Daily to Southern Weekly are upping their budgets for foreign reporting.
Palestinians preparing to bury the victim of an Israeli airstrike (by Chen Xu)
“Xinhua’s Gaza bureau didn’t have many people before 2008,” explains Chen, who majored in Arabic at university before joining the agency’s Beijing newsroom. “But with the Gaza War [of 2008-2009] and Beijing hosting the Olympics Games, China wanted to provide an alternative to Western media, so we expanded.
“When I was there, we also had around 40 or 50 local [Palestinian] reporters and our Jerusalem bureau had almost the same number of Israelis. Of course we don’t hire as many as AP or AFP do, but we still have a lot of staff. It’s an international news agency, not just a domestic one.”
Up to 40 Chinese journalists are believed to have covered the Libyan Civil War in 2011. As such, Chen is one of a generation of young reporters working in conflict zones previously considered beyond the remit of the country’s media. He has been able to accompany Iraqi forces in Ramadi and Mosul – the front line of their battle against ISIS – and he believes that China’s media enjoys more cooperation from military officials than before: “Sometimes there will only be one or two positions, so they’ll choose BBC or CNN. But 80 times out of 100 we can go together.”
Yet despite China’s growing presence in international press corps, its journalists still struggle to get access. Some describe being denied entry to group interviews or photo shoots (so-called ‘press pools’). And while state media reporters do occasionally get to spend time attached to a military unit (or ‘embedment’), those who do are often hamstrung. A pair of Chinese journalists embedded with a US Airborne Division in Kandahar, Afghanistan, complained of greater restrictions than other media, saying that the military stopped providing assistance when their reports were deemed unflattering.
A Kurdish fighter outside the Iraqi city of Kirkuk (by Chen Xu)
There are other, more insidious difficulties faced by China’s war correspondents. Many in the West have reservations about the objectivity of their reporting, a suspicion that can extend to fellow reporters. In 2011, a journalist from Al Jazeera’s Beijing bureau, Ezzat Shahrour, wrote a widely circulated critique of Chinese reporters in Libya titled ‘The Arab people have 100,000 questions for Chinese media.’ He accused them of misrepresentation and double standards, for “emphasizing only the humanitarian disasters caused by Western air bombardments, and reporting sparingly if at all on the violent suppression and massacre of the people by Gaddafi.”
One of the few academics studying Chinese war reporting, Shixin Ivy Zhang from The University of Nottingham, is especially interested in issues of objectivity. She has carried out in-depth interviews with dozens of correspondents, recently publishing a book on her findings.
“No media can be absolutely 100-percent objective or impartial – they all have their own bias,” she argues. “So Chinese journalists also have their own bias, and their reports can be influenced by China’s foreign policy, as well as their [employers’] own editorial policies.”
Zhang’s research paints a nuanced picture of reporting from the front line, outlining something that she describes as “Chinese-style pragmatic objectivity.” And while the role of journalists in China – both their function and relationship to the state – is fundamentally different from in the West, her research suggests that war reporters have, to an extent, adopted “a Western model of objective reporting,” that shares an emphasis on facts, balance, detachment, neutrality and diversification of sources.
When – or if – reports are edited to conform with a media organization’s policies or the perceived national interest, this happens in the newsroom, not on the ground, Zhang says.
“The journalists all tell me that they’re just reporters – they only cover what they see,” she explains. “They say: ‘It’s my job to write the story and send it out, and it’s the editor’s job to make sure that our published copy [is consistent] with foreign policy or the editorial lines. So they defend themselves by highlighting that their role is to report what they see.”
Two children playing in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan (by Chen Xu)
In fact, many of the reporters Zhang spoke to said that Chinese neutrality in many world conflicts – those in the Middle East especially – helps them to be more objective than their Western counterparts. The country’s non-interventionism may help them provide what Zhang calls “an additional pair of eyes and ears” in places where the narrative has traditionally been dictated by the Western press.
Providing balance was of such importance to Gao Lu, one of Chen’s Xinhua colleagues, that she returned to the field after eight years away to see a new side of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Having been assigned to the agency’s Jerusalem bureau between 2004 and 2006, she took on her second Middle East role in the Palestinian territories in 2014.
“I really enjoyed my time in Jerusalem, and I made a lot of friends there,” she explains. “But I really wanted to know what happens on the other side of the war. I realized that taking the job would be a good opportunity for me to understand the other side of the story.”
She is motivated, like many of the reporters in Zhang’s research, by a combination of intrigue and excitement. But most of all, her desire is to pursue truth and to tell people’s stories.
“To be a good journalist you have to be close to the scene,” she says. “You have to talk to people and not rely on second-hand information. You have to see through your own eyes and listen through your own ears. That’s what I do.
“I’m just trying my best to show how the Palestinians live,” she continues. “I want to show Chinese people that there’s not only conflict here – these are good people with their own traditions. I want to find some of the connections between Palestine and China.”
Even the harshest critics of China’s state media, or those with the sternest definition of objectivity, should be able to find respect for the country’s war reporters. The risks taken by – and the emotional toll taken on – individual journalists is real, regardless of politics.
Now aged 29, Chen has moved on to a safer post in Warsaw for the sake of his wife and 3-year-old daughter. He reflects on his time in conflict zones.
“It was too hard for me to tell the truth, because the truth is so cruel. And whether I was in Iraq or Palestine, people there all told me the same thing: ‘You correspondents come and go – you fill the gap in your newspaper or the time in your show, and nothing changes.’
“After that, I felt that I should get out. Having seen so many children die in front of their parents, I thought that it was time to move on with my family and enjoy my life.”