On March 17th, the Chinese government ordered journalists from three American news outlets--The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post--to turn in their press credentials and expelled them from the country. Why did they choose to take this extreme measure?
The Chinese leadership very clearly targeted those journalists it wanted out of the country. This wasn't a blanket order for all American journalists to pack up and leave; nor was the order intended to reduce the overall numbers of American journalists. China targeted American citizen journalists at five news organizations, emphasizing three in particular: The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Those were the media organizations that hit close to the Chinese government's sensitivities. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have won Pulitzer Prizes in recent years for their investigative reporting on China that Beijing clearly viewed as negative. Thus, the expulsion retaliated against those organizations, and specifically against Americans in those organizations.
This was also a move the Chinese government has wanted to take for a long time. Back in 2012, both The New York Times and Bloomberg News investigated the wealth accumulated by family members of two top Chinese leaders, an outgoing premier and an incoming president. The Chinese were furious. They couldn't believe that someone who was not an official, namely a citizen journalist, could get that kind of information from public sources, like I.D. cards and business documents. The journalists even got names of relatives from tombstones. And so the government cut back on access to a lot of that information. By then, however, it was too late because the stories were already out there. At that time, the Chinese government did not react by expelling people, but rather it did the next closest thing, which was to prevent the entry of other journalists from those organizations by denying them visas to China. For about three years, if any reporters from The New York Times left China, the paper couldn't replace them.
More recently, the Chinese government felt particularly aggrieved for a number of reasons, including the ongoing trade talks, comments made by the current US administration and in particular Donald Trump’s use of the term ‘China virus,’ as well as the editorial headline in The Wall Street Journal published in early February that called China the “Sick Man of Asia.” This headline was the straw that broke the camel's back. In retaliation, China expelled three Wall Street Journal journalists who were unrelated to the editorial. The U.S. then retaliated with the measure that reduced the number of Chinese correspondents operating in the U.S.; and now we see China retaliating yet again with surgical strikes against specific media organizations, and in some cases, against specific journalists.
What is the relationship between the Chinese government and foreign press?
The relationship ranges from cordial and cooperative to adversarial and retaliatory on the part of the government. I had about ten reporting trips to China between 1985 and 1989. Getting information from the Chinese government back then was like pulling teeth. The only way you could contact people was via telephones, so places like Foreign Ministry or the Ministry of Commerce would only get back to us journalists when they wanted to. Often we would ask a question about data or some statistics, and they would usually respond with “we will note your question.” The end. Phone inquiries to the government were rarely successful.
That was the 1980s. When I was there permanently from 2010 to 2013, the situation was much improved. Every ministry had a spokesperson. We had the Internet. The Foreign Ministry would publish all its briefings, or at least the edited versions of them. The Foreign Ministry was much more sophisticated and would respond to requests. We could also call more people to ask for interviews, especially professors and members of some think tanks. I was surprised at how open professors were and how critical they were of things—not of specific leaders, but of government policy in general, like controls over pollution or food safety, or even corruption.
So in some ways it was a lot easier to be a foreign journalist in the 2010s than it was in the 1980s. But it was still obstructionist in the sense that if there were information that the Chinese government didn't want to share, it wouldn’t. And it still wouldn’t respond well to questions about sensitive issues, such as the South China Sea or North Korea.
In many cases, the Foreign Ministry was the only place you could go. But while they would usually have an answer, frequently the answer was “as we have previously stated” followed by some boilerplate statement. They wouldn't censor the questions, and you could ask anything.
Those briefings were a vehicle for cooperation between the government and the foreign media because that was the chance to ask any question to an official who would answer it. Even if the answer was “we have no comment,” that was often helpful for journalists, especially for the news services like AP, Reuters and Bloomberg that do daily stories. It at least shows that you inquired about an issue and gave the government an opportunity to respond. So it was cooperative in that sense.
But it also could be obstructionist and retaliatory. The Chinese government inserts itself into the reporting process much more than the US government does. It will phone up correspondents frequently to complain about the coverage of a wide range of issues. Or, foreign journalists would be invited to come by “for tea,” a euphemism to come by so the government could complain to you about your reporting.
That's the mild version of it. These instances could be somewhat confrontational but not that threatening. That is, not threatening unless the authority--usually the police or Foreign Ministry--implied that you were operating on thin ice and thus risking retaliatory measures for continuing to report untruths. It could then be phone taps or surveillance, or the police visiting your apartment--under the pretense of asking for papers--in order to let you know they were watching you. Or it could be physically obstructionist, such as actively keeping journalists away from people, especially dissidents like Chen Guangcheng. During his house arrest, whenever journalists would try to visit Chen, hired hands would literally push journalists away, throw rocks at their vehicles, or chase them away with heavy sticks.
Journalists could also be detained--not very frequently, but it’s happened before. And ultimately, your visa might not be renewed. That meant you could stay until your visa ran out, but then you had to leave within days.
The Chinese government doesn't trust the foreign press. It sees these journalists not only as adversarial, but as a necessary evil in order to remain perceived as different from an authoritarian dictatorship like North Korea. Chinese officials frequently say China is an open country that welcomes foreign visitors, but doesn’t welcome interference in domestic affairs. That is said explicitly. What is not said is China will not tolerate criticism of their leaders by foreign media. You'll never see that in their domestic media. Likewise the private lives of the Chinese leadership, especially those leaders’ wealth, are some of the most sensitive topics, alongside issues like the treatment of Uyghurs, Tibet and political dissidents.
The U.S. is not without blame for the current rise in tensions. In early March, the U.S. imposed limits on the number of staff at five Chinese news agencies operating in the U.S., effectively cutting 60 Chinese citizens from the organizations. While journalists were not specifically targeted, how will the new restrictions affect these agencies, and in what ways is this similar and dissimilar from China expelling U.S. journalists? Will it affect coverage of U.S. stories in China?
The restrictions imposed by the U.S. are not going to affect coverage of U.S. stories in China. While 60 staff members is a large number, the U.S. government didn't target specific journalists or require that any journalists themselves leave. But also, these organizations already had very big bureaus--160 members--and they're all over the place; New York, Washington, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The same is not true for AP, Reuters and Bloomberg in China. There are only two bureaus in China for these organizations, located in Beijing and Shanghai. That's it. They don't have any in Chengdu or Guangzhou. There are some individuals in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but reporting for the vast majority of the Chinese mainland is just out of two cities. So that’s a major imbalance.
Until these regulations, Chinese journalists in the U.S. were not limited in their travel. Now they're supposed to advise the U.S. government of their long distance movements. To be fair, China does not require this of foreign journalists--with the exception of Tibet, where travel is restricted--but they keep very close tabs on journalists. When foreign journalists travel to sensitive areas of Sichuan or Xinjiang, they are closely monitored and often obligated to leave. The U.S. has never done this to Chinese journalists. Sure they may be followed and monitored by U.S. intelligence services, as they are employees--and by certain definitions, agents--of the Chinese government, but they are not stopped or told they cannot report somewhere because it's a sensitive domestic issue.
So in terms of coverage of the U.S., it is unlikely that the new restrictions are going to have much effect. They're still going to have their main anchors and their main writers in the U.S., just the supplemental staff were let go. With that said, the Chinese media will likely play up these new restrictions and expulsions quite a lot. You'll see more focus on issues in the U.S. like corruption, high crime, high levels of incarceration, high drug use, high gun ownership--generally things that Chinese see as negative about the United States. Likewise, there will be more emphasis on how the Trump administration and the current U.S. government are antagonistic toward China. But the Chinese media haven’t really been hampered in their reporting capabilities.
This is not the case for the U.S. journalists and news organizations that have been working in China. The New York Times has about ten foreign correspondents in China, total. And seven of them have had to leave simply because they were Americans, because there were other non-American reporters who weren’t ordered out, even if their visas expired in 2020. All the U.S. reporters whose visas were set to expire in 2020 were ordered out, leaving only those whose visas expire in 2021.
Is it harder for American news organizations to find journalists to work in China than it is for Chinese news organizations to find journalists to work in the US?
Reporters who are expelled from the U.S. are much easier to replace by the Chinese than the reverse. When U.S. news organizations send someone to China, they either send somebody who is fluent in Chinese and experienced with the country, or a veteran reporter and writer. Knowing the language and thus not requiring an interpreter is very important for someone to be able to get around by themselves and build their own sources. Kicking out the star reporter from the People’s Daily--and again, the U.S. did not require any specific reporters to leave--is not that big of a deal, as that individual could easily be replaced by someone who is equally fluent in English, with a similar source list.
This really speaks to why it is easier for China to replace Chinese journalists. If you just look at any American newsroom or news organization, there are very few fluent Mandarin speakers on the staff. Bigger news organizations might have some former Chinese correspondents or people aspiring to be correspondents, but they don't have many Chinese specialists or people who are interested in going to China. There are all kinds of considerations which keep people away--language barriers for both individuals and their families, pollution, press restrictions etc.
Chinese news organizations have a very different situation. A great number of Chinese citizens speak excellent English, despite having never set foot outside of China, and who would be good at making contacts and would love to live in the United States. It's hard to find that desire about China among the population of newsrooms across America.
And again, the bureaus that organizations like The New York Times have in China are very small. AP and Reuters have more foreign correspondents, but they are more divided up. There are people who are specialized in the economy, in commodities, in television news, company reporting news, political news etc. But this raises the question, why weren't organizations like AP and Reuters, or even the LA Times targeted?
It’s because these organizations weren't that threatening. They didn’t have the same kind of hard-hitting investigative reporting of the other organizations, particularly The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The Washington Post is also very aggressive in their reporting about China from the U.S. side.
In contrast, the LA Times only has two correspondents in China, and AP and Reuters are simply busy because they cover the daily grind of news stories in China. They don’t have the people power to dedicate to these lengthy investigative stories. They try, but they are not as deep or hard hitting because they have to cover so much. So in a way, AP and Reuters and Bloomberg do a lot of the grunt work that frees up people at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to go into their deep investigations.
What steps can both the U.S. and China take in the medium and longer term to ensure that journalists and news agencies can operate with relative freedom in each other's countries?
In one word, reciprocity. Restrictions for travel should be lifted. Replacements and visa extensions should be approved quickly. Moreover, there should not be targeting of specific individuals for the content of their reporting, nor should reporters be kept away from certain areas. The U.S. doesn't say that Chinese reporters can't go to Alaska, or Florida, or Hawaii in the same way that China says American reporters can't go to Tibet. The U.S. also doesn't employ police or private security to keep Chinese journalists away from American political dissidents. If a Chinese reporter wanted to do a report on the Ku Klux Klan or a separatist militia, they could. If such a thing existed in China, there's no way that foreign journalists could freely report on them.
It’s about having an equal playing field. The U.S. doesn't ban certain reporters by not reissuing or refusing them visas. That's happened well beyond the most recent events in China, with reporters at Reuters, The Financial Times, Bloomberg and The New York Times. These are people who never even made it to China in the first place because they weren't issued their visas. The U.S. doesn't do that.
There should also be equal access to officials and to briefings. When I was in China, the foreign press could go to the daily Foreign Ministry briefing, but that was our only window into the government. We wanted to go to the Defense Ministry's briefings, but we could only attend when we were specifically invited. And even then, that was only because they were going to say something that they wanted the foreign press to report.
Having a relationship of trust is also important. I got to know some of the people in the Public Affairs Office of the Defense Ministry. When I first met them, I was excited to have a place to go ask queries. But it’s ingrained in Chinese officials that the foreign press should not be trusted. One of the people I knew there was nice and approachable, but he also was very skittish about doing anything beyond what he was told to do for his job. I called him up once to see if he wanted to get coffee or lunch, and he was generally puzzled by what I was trying to do: develop a cordial relationship. That's the sort of thing I would hope that the two governments can overcome. I wish this official could have understood that I'm not working on behalf of the U.S. government, or trying to get to know him because I think he might feed me some confidential information. It can only make for better understanding between governments and between people if there is this kind of freer dialogue. In China, everything is perceived as a threat, which leads the party to take all kinds of actions that engender suspicion and mistrust by both foreign governments and by its own people. It's only through openness, and not through tightly controlled conduits of information like the daily news conferences of the Foreign Ministry, that we can hope to enhance mutual understanding. Without access to a genuine exchange of opinions, views and information, we cannot have an open exchange of equals.
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