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.