China’s expat media community has been divided by allegations of inappropriate behaviour and bickering, after the president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China was felled by a scandal earlier this year.
Jon Kaiman, the LA Times bureau chief, is currently suspended from his paper after two women published accusations of sexual misconduct against him. The first, Laura Tucker, was his housemate who, in January, published a post on Medium in which she described a 2013 sexual encounter with Kaiman that was initially consensual, then got out of control. In the post she states that she “explicitly voiced [her] lack of consent”, then felt “pressured into sex”.
That post, and Kaiman’s subsequent resignation from the club’s presidency, prompted fierce chatter among correspondents based in Beijing about the allegation. Despite Kaiman’s resignation, there was a divide within the community — there were those who thought he was the victim of a witch hunt, and others who thought the board hadn’t acted strongly enough.
Adding to the animosity, the Hong Kong Free Press obtained and published screenshots of leaked comments from a soccer club WeChat messaging group, which included a number of male foreign correspondents. The comments had been circulated around the community, which included calling the scandal a “witch hunt”, and the writers were later identified online (including the ABC’s former China correspondent Stephen McDonell, who now reports for the BBC).
Those comments were at least in part a prompt for former Wall Street Journal correspondent Felicia Sonmez to make her own allegation against Kaiman public. The scandal was also cited in a widely-shared Foreign Policy piece about “sexpat” journalists — about how foreign men working abroad were allowed to continue without accountability for alleged behaviour they’d be sacked for at home. The piece, by Joanna Chiu, is another source of division within the community.
Shortly before the club’s AGM in May, she emailed the board and asked for her letter to be circulated, including her upset at how the board had handled Tucker’s complaint. That letter prompted the LA Times to suspend Kaiman pending an investigation.
Kaiman has stated “all of the acts we engaged in were mutually consensual”.
The whole affair has been the subject of bickering within WeChat and WhatsApp text messaging groups created for communities of journalists based in China. The groups — with dozens, and some with hundreds, of members — have widely descended into squabbling between those who believe complaints about sexual misconduct haven’t been taken seriously enough, and those who feel the reaction is over the top. One correspondent based in Beijing told Crikey “everyone is hooked on the chat groups because it’s such a circus”.
A cycle of taking screenshots of comments, sharing them, then being criticised for doing so, has been repeated over and over since the scandal truly blew up nearly a month ago. Group comments from last week seen by Crikey were still bickering about whether comments that would “divide” the community should be shared outside the groups.
At an extraordinary general meeting earlier this month to elect a new board, there was a higher-than-average number of write-in votes, especially for vice president Yuan Yang (of the Financial Times), who’s in the camp agitating about sexual harassment issues. Of 84 votes for the vice president position, 10 were write-ins. There were 11 write-in votes for the president position (of 82 votes). By comparison, last year’s votes for president, won by Kaiman, had six write-in votes.
The FCCC’s main role is reporting on conditions for journalists in China, including political interference, and to organise events and guest speakers. And as the noise around the scandal continues to reverberate, almost a month after Sonmez’s allegations were made public, there is some concern that the continuing argument means the FCCC’s role of collecting and reporting incidents of interference in correspondents’ work is falling by the wayside, a correspondent Crikey spoke to said.
“There’s a feeling among many journalists here that the melodrama is distracting from the FCCC’s core role (especially at a challenging time for the media in China),” they said.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.