Mon, January 24, 2022


Western journalists are pushed out of China as U.S.-China relations sour

WASHINGTON - Starting this week, The Washington Post will no longer have a correspondent in China, the first time in 40 years that it hasn't had a full-time reporter covering the world's most-populous country. 

Like many Western news organizations, The Post has been caught in the middle of tensions between two superpowers that is already limiting the flow of independent news and information from the country at a critical time. Chinese officials have for months declined to accredit a new Post correspondent to replace Beijing bureau chief, Anna Fifield, who voluntarily left the country on Tuesday to return to her native New Zealand for a new job.

At the same time, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News - all major sources of news from China - have lost correspondents, too, with no prospect that China will permit replacements. Australian news outlets no longer have any correspondents in the country after the last two were driven out by Chinese officials earlier this month.

This looming news vacuum appears to be the result of strife between China and Western countries, especially the United States, over issues including trade, China's crackdown on Hong Kong's independence, and human-rights violations against the Muslim Uighur minority in China's Xinjiang province. The tensions have been exacerbated by the global coronavirus pandemic, which first emerged last year in a Chinese province.

Although China has maintained a close watch over non-Chinese reporters for decades, its actions since the spring have created some of the most confining conditions since the late 1970s, when American reporters began to return to China after being barred by its communist government.

Beijing expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters in February, the first time since Mao Zedong's rule that multiple foreign journalists were kicked out at once. In March, it designated five American news organizations - The Post, Times, Journal, Time magazine and Voice of America - as "foreign missions" that must report to the government about their staffs, finances and operations in China. It also said journalists from those three American newspapers must leave the country when their visas expire this year.

The announcement was in retaliation for the Trump administration's decision to designate five state-run Chinese media organizations in the United States as foreign missions. It later ordered the expulsion of dozens of their employees.

The hostile climate elicited an unusual joint plea from the publishers of The Post, the Times and Journal. In an open letter to the Chinese government that ran in March as a full-page ad in all three newspapers, they asked Beijing to "ease the growing crackdown on independent news organizations."

The upshot of this worsening climate, of course, has been diminished coverage of China as the world grapples with the pandemic's catastrophic impact.

"From a Chinese perspective, they would just as soon be done with" American journalists, said Orville Schell, a leading China scholar for more than 50 years. "They don't mind [financial reporters], because economic news is important to China, but they'd like to get rid of all the rest. They consider them troublemakers who are besmirching China."

Added Schell, "I think we're in a really alarmingly dangerous state of free fall [between the Chinese and U.S. governments], with no road map to arrest the downward spiral."

The increasing uncertainty over Chinese rule in Hong Kong prompted the New York Times to announce in July that it would relocate its Hong Kong-based digital news operations to Seoul by next year. As a British colony for decades, Hong Kong developed into a hub for Western news reporting on China. But that has been threatened by China's drive to limit Hong Kong's autonomy, including the enactment of a sweeping new "security" law in June that targets pro-democracy factions.

Chinese officials have refused to renew a work permit for Chris Buckley, the Times's veteran China correspondent, prompting him to leave the mainland in May. Buckley has documented a number of stories that have angered government officials and made him the target of criticism in China's state-run media, including China's mistreatment of Muslims and the government's bungled early response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Times still has two correspondents in Beijing and is "hopeful over time that we will be able to get our entire reporting staff back," said Michael Slackman, the Times's assistant managing editor for international news. Yet "we are clearly struggling to figure out how best to cover China when access is such a problem. But as you can see from our report we are continuing to try to cover the most important political, social and economic stories of the day. Of course, it would be a lot easier if more of our correspondents were permitted to live and work in China again."

The departure of Fifield has left The Post to cover China from afar, although its Beijing bureau will continue under two full-time Chinese researchers. Correspondent Gerry Shih was effectively expelled from China in March; a new correspondent, Eva Dou, has been unable to gain accreditation since March, nominally as a result of coronavirus restrictions. Despite the restrictions, The Post's foreign editor, Douglas Jehl, said the news organization "will continue to vigorously cover China and its relations with the U.S."

Spokespeople for the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News declined to comment.

The two Australian journalists, Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review, beat a hasty departure from China earlier this month after Chinese officials detained them. Authorities questioned them about their association with Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian who serves as a news anchor for Chinese state broadcaster CGTN. She was detained on Aug. 14 for reasons that remain unclear.

The reporters spent four days holed up in the Australian Embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai while diplomats negotiated their departure. They were finally cleared to leave, eliminating the last Australian reporters in the country.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China denounced what it called the use of "foreign journalists as pawns in wider diplomatic disputes. . . . Such actions by the Chinese government amount to appalling intimidatory tactics that threaten and seek to curtail the work of foreign journalists based in China, who now face the threat of arbitrary detention for simply doing their work, and difficult circumstances that make it untenable to remain in the country."


Published : September 17, 2020