China’s announcement on March 17 that it will expel at least 13 American journalists with the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal will hurt China more than it will punish the United States. But it’s not good for anyone.
China called the move retaliation for a recent U.S. order sharply limiting the number of Chinese journalists in the U.S. But Beijing’s decision is also aimed at trying to quash hard-hitting reporting during a time of crisis and deliver a message to Washington that it won’t be pushed around.
The move is obviously bad for U.S. news consumers, who rely on these outlets for accurate reporting. But it also is bad for China. At a time when China is having some success combating the COVID-19 pandemic, the world needs to get news of that from trusted sources. Ultimately, the expulsion order could cast doubt on Beijing’s message that it has brought the coronavirus crisis under control.
The Chinese government has always tried to keep the Western press on a short leash, especially when it is facing internal crises.
When I was covering the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests for the Associated Press, China expelled a fellow AP reporter whose excellent reporting on the student movement leadership brought their voices to the world. Authorities also kicked out a Voice of America correspondent at that time; his reports were broadcast back into China, which the country’s leadership couldn’t countenance.
In 2011, I was living in Beijing reporting for Reuters. During the Arab Spring movement, calls went out online for Chinese citizens to gather in silent protest in certain public places. Chinese authorities panicked, blocking off a wide swath of Beijing’s popular Wangfujing shopping district with a fake construction site to thwart the protesters’ plans.
As I was at work covering the story, uniformed police and a plainclothes officer visited my family, ostensibly to check our residence papers. I learned later they only visited the homes of foreign journalists.
While the visitors were not threatening, I felt chills understanding how citizens throughout history had felt during such house calls. The message was clear: We know where you live, and we know when you’re not home.
During my years in China, authorities vigorously tried to keep Western reporters away from dissidents such as blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng and the Tiananmen Mothers group of parents whose children were killed in 1989. We were refused permission to visit Tibet and ejected from Tibetan regions of Sichuan province, where activists promoted Tibetan identity.
Between 2013 and January of this year, Beijing expelled, or denied visas to the news organizations of, six Western reporters. In explaining its actions, the Chinese government claimed unfair or false coverage of sensitive areas of Chinese society and governance. The expelled reporters or their media had written about the wealth of Chinese officials, so-called “black jails” for dissidents and the “reeducation” camps for the Uighur minority in western China.
China then ejected three Wall Street Journal reporters in February, ostensibly in retaliation for an opinion piece in that paper bearing the headline, “China is the real sick man of Asia.”
President Donald Trump responded by ordering five Chinese news organizations, described by the State Department as propaganda arms of the government, to reduce their Chinese-citizen staff in the U.S. from about 160 to 100. Now we have this new wave of expulsions by China.
The news organizations singled out by Washington this month — New China News Agency, the People’s Daily and China Daily newspapers; China Radio; and China Global Television Network — are all state-run media that ultimately report editorially to the Chinese Communist Party. But that has always been the case, and reducing the number of Chinese journalists for that reason was an act that seemed destined to provoke more expulsions of U.S. journalists.
“The fact that the U.S. would not tolerate the mere presence of Chinese media on its territory exposed how hypocritical the U.S. is regarding its much-touted freedom of speech,” China Global Television Network said in an editorial on March 18. “Contrary to the wishful thinking of some American politicians, China is not a pushover for the U.S. bully.”
Both governments need to recognize that entering into a cycle of retaliation that results in fewer journalists covering crucial stories is bad for both countries.
And for China, which frequently complains that it is misunderstood, cutting off foreign news reporting so drastically is a way to ensure that.