After declaring a resounding victory against the Covid-19 pandemic, a newly confident China so far this year has tested new ballistic missiles, threatened Taiwan by ignoring the median line in the Taiwan Strait, expanded its erasure of Muslim Uyghur culture in Xinjiang, and extended its evisceration of Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms.
At the same time, China has shown a new aggressiveness in trying to curtail the activities of the foreign reporters in the country, and to quash any unfavourable coverage of the Chinese Communist Party or its leader, General Secretary Xi Jinping.
Where China once tolerated, even courted, the international media as a sign of the country’s re-emergence in the world, its leaders today see foreign correspondents as a meddlesome presence they can easily do without.
China has long been one of the world’s most restrictive countries for journalists, local and foreign. Reporters Without Borders lists China at number 177 out of 180 countries for its repression of the press, down just a few notches from 171st place a decade ago.
Foreign journalists in China have for decades faced restrictive visa procedures and expulsions, control of their movements, constant surveillance and physical threats. News assistants, the Chinese nationals who work as researchers and translators in foreign news bureaus, have routinely faced threats to themselves and their family members, invitations—or instructions—to spy on their employers, and warnings to ‘remember you are Chinese’. The situation for the overseas press corps in Beijing worsened dramatically after Xi came to power at the end of 2012, according to annual surveys by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.
But even by China’s dismal standards, this year has seen a marked deterioration.
At least 17 foreign reporters have been forced to leave China since the start of the year, an unprecedented mass expulsion and roughly double the number expelled in the first seven years of Xi’s rule. Even after the tumultuous events of 1989 with the Tiananmen Square massacre, only two American journalists, for the Associated Press and Voice of America, were immediately expelled.
Several other Western journalists now remaining in China have not had their press credentials renewed and are allowed to continue working only with short-term letters issued by the foreign ministry, meaning they can be expelled at any time. They are from CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News and Getty Images.
For the first time since the 1970s, Australian media outlets have no correspondents based in China. The Washington Post has had no correspondent in China since the last bureau chief left to take a new job in New Zealand and no visa has been granted for a replacement. The New York Times, which once had one of the largest and most prolific bureaus in China, now has a single foreign correspondent covering the vast country of 1.4 billion people.
Chinese officials have defended their actions as mere tit-for-tat retaliation for the treatment of its journalists overseas.
An earlier wave of expulsions of American journalists from China in May came after the Trump administration restricted the number of non-American journalists allowed to work for five Chinese state-run media outlets in the US to 100. Earlier this year, three Wall Street Journal reporters were forced out of China due to Beijing’s ire over an opinion piece that ran in the paper at the height of the coronavirus pandemic with a headline, ‘China is the real sick man of Asia’, that some Chinese considered offensive. The latest freeze on press credentials came after Trump signed an order restricting all Chinese journalists in the US to 90-day work visas, instead of the normal open-ended, single-entry visas they were accustomed to.
The last Australian journalists left China in dramatic fashion. After being visited by Chinese public security agents, Bill Birtles of the ABC in Beijing and Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review in Shanghai first sought refuge in Australian diplomatic compounds and then flew out on 7 September. The visits seemed in retaliation for the June raids by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation on the homes of four Chinese journalists based in Australia. Those four Chinese reporters later fled back to mainland China. Later, Australia was told that Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian citizen working for the state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN) had been detained in a national security case.
But beyond China’s expressed need for a retaliatory show of force in the world, its treatment of foreign reporters underscores an essential shift in the ruling communist party’s attitude over the past three decades; China feels it simply doesn’t need foreign journalists any more.
That is a marked change from the 1990s and the early 2000s.
US President Donald Trump has generally pursued a foreign policy full of inconsistencies and contradictions, but that doesn’t apply to his approach to the Middle East. He has consistently targeted Iran as a menace and forged an anti-Iranian Arab–Israeli alliance to counter Tehran and its allies. Will his strategy pay off?
Trump has thrived on a ‘divide and rule’ policy at home and abroad. He is the first American leader to score well in enticing some of the Gulf Arab kingdoms to join hands with Israel to confront ‘the Iranian threat’. Hence his brokering of normalisation-of-relations agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Trump wants Tehran to renegotiate the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which he withdrew the US in 2018, and to retrench its military capability and regional influence according to American interests.
He has subjected Tehran to a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ to make it buckle under the weight of increased US sanctions at a time when Iran has also been hit hard by Covid-19. As Tehran has remained defiant, he has racked up pressure by seeking to use the JCPOA’s ‘snapback’ clause to restore all the pre-JCPOA United Nations sanctions against Iran, despite the US not being a party to the agreement anymore.
While lambasting Tehran for shirking some of its commitments to the agreement in response to his actions, he has ignored Iran’s legal right to do so under the same ‘snapback’ clause as long as it remains a party to the agreement. Not surprisingly, the other signatories to the JCPOA, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, say any attempt by Trump to reimpose the UN sanctions is ‘illegal’ and have confirmed once again their support for preserving the agreement as an important measure for regional stability and international security.
Trump says his policy actions are necessary to build a peaceful and stable Middle East. But they stand to backfire on a number of fronts.
The president’s policy of pressuring the Iranian Islamic regime to give in or die has caused maximum damage to the Iranian society, without necessarily endangering the survivability of the regime. The ruling clerical stratum has learned how to circumvent and cope with American sanctions for most of its life since 1979. It has developed all the needed religiously based pragmatic and nationalist mechanisms and measures for self-preservation, with a capacity to contain internal dissent and stand up to external challenges.
In response to US pressure, it has strengthened Iran’s strategic ties with America’s major adversaries, China and Russia, and maintained at significant cost its regional allies—including the Syrian Bashar al-Assad government, the Iraqi Shia militias, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis—as part of a broad security architecture.
Trump may find it in his interest to provoke Iran into a confrontation, but Tehran’s approach is to wait until the outcome of the November US election. Democratic candidate Joe Biden has indicated that if he wins the election he will restore America’s participation in the JCPOA—although Trump is doing everything he can to make it impossible for him to do so.