• Cancellation of US reporters’ credentials followed the US designating five Chinese state media outlets as ‘foreign missions’ of their government
  • A ‘step forward’ for media freedom in 2008 has been replaced by another arena for the tensions between Beijing and Washington
Reporters working in China have faced barriers from a government intent on controlling the narrative. Photo: Xinhua

In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China appeared to be opening to international media.

China's then premier Wen Jiabao issued temporary regulations from January 2007 that granted foreign reporters unprecedented access in the country, relaxing restrictions in place since 1990 that required journalists to obtain permission to report there from local authorities. Even if the rule changes were sometimes ignored, Beijing in October 2008 made the more relaxed policy permanent, at least on paper.

"This is not only a big step forward for China in opening up to the outside world, it is also a big step for further facilitating reporting activities by foreign journalists," Liu Jianchao, director general of the foreign ministry's information department, said at the time.

But more than a decade later, foreign media in China have steadily been throttled and painted domestically as hostile forces, particularly since Xi Jinping became president in 2013.

Beijing has sought to aggressively influence international media coverage, and expelled correspondents whose reporting it did not find favourable. And as the strategic rivalry between Beijing and Washington has intensified, foreign reporters and the Chinese-national news assistants working with them have been caught in the crossfire.

The latest casualties came with the cancellation announced last week of the credentials for at least 13 American reporters at three major US newspapers in China and a number of Chinese news assistants at those outlets.

Beijing said it was retaliating against the US government for designating five Chinese state-run media outlets as "foreign missions" of Beijing and capping the number of Chinese nationals they could employ in the US, effectively forcing out 60 Chinese employees.

China 'using visas as weapons' against foreign journalists

"There are no winners in the use of journalists as diplomatic pawns by the world's two pre-eminent economic powers," the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) of China said after the expulsions. "Journalists illuminate the world we live in. China, through this action, is dimming itself."

The move follows the expulsion of nine other foreign journalists from China since 2013, along with the issuance of truncated visas to journalists, according to the FCC.

Those nine included Chun Han Wong, the former Beijing correspondent for The Wall Street Journal whose reporting credentials were denied last August, after he co-authored an article about the Australian authorities' scrutiny of Xi's cousin in a money-laundering probe.

In February, after The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece headlined "China is the real sick man of Asia", which Beijing said was racist, the Chinese authorities revoked credentials for three of the paper's Beijing-based correspondents in retaliation.

US news organisations ask China to reconsider expulsion of their journalists

After the latest expulsions, US officials were considering responding by expelling employees at Chinese media organisations in the US who they say have acted mainly as intelligence agents rather than journalists, The New York Times reported on Thursday.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the expulsion of Chinese state-media employees working for "propaganda outlets" was not "apples to apples" with Beijing's actions, which he said removed "the world's ability to conduct the free press operations that frankly would be really good for the Chinese people … in these incredibly challenging global times, where more information, more transparency, are what will save lives."

Chin-hao Huang, assistant professor of political science at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, said the expulsions added to the "tit-for-tat dynamic", particularly as tensions have risen over the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's an easy diversionary tactic and scapegoating for the Chinese leadership in particular to try to use to peddle some of the fears and concerns that the more hawkish people in China have," he said.

Tensions over foreign media in China are not new. Most Western journalists were expelled from China after the Communist Party took power in 1949, and it was only after the normalisation of relations between Beijing and Washington in 1979 that American media began to open bureaus in the country.

But after 1989's bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, two American correspondents, from Associated Press and Voice of America, were expelled.

In the decades after, despite the relaxation of foreign media regulations in 2009, the government continued to pressure and restrict international reporters. In 2012, deep dives by Bloomberg and The New York Times on the wealth of the families of Xi and Wen caused both outlets' websites to be blocked in mainland China. Their reporters were threatened and experienced delays in securing visas.

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In November 2014, journalist Mark Landler, of The New York Times, used the rare opportunity to question Xi directly, during a joint press conference with former US president Barack Obama, to ask about the delays of visas for foreign correspondents. After initially ignoring the question, Xi responded later that media outlets "need to obey China's laws and regulations".

After the latest expulsions, a former foreign correspondent in China penned an anonymous article on Chinese social media platform WeChat about how Western media served as one of the first channels for the outside world to understand China, citing American journalist Edgar Snow, known for his rare access to Chinese leaders including Mao Zedong.

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"Reducing opportunities for on-the-ground reporting in China would only widen misunderstandings and distrust between China and the outside world," they wrote.

Zhong Jiahu, an opinion writer for state-run Economic Daily, wrote on Wednesday that China had developed sufficiently to hit back when foreign media attacked it.

"China welcomes the (Edgar) Snows of the new era, but are any foreign journalists willing to be him? Do they know how to?" he wrote.

Yuan Zeng, a media scholar at the University of Leeds, said China's latest expulsions of foreign journalists represented a "huge loss" of knowledge and understanding of the country.

"China's overseas image will not be as 'positive' as China would want, no matter how many journalists it expels," she said. "Especially during the global pandemic which started in China, the world needs independent journalism more than ever."

China silences calls for freedom of speech, closing critics' WeChat accounts

Florian Schneider, director of the Leiden Asia Centre in the Netherlands, said targeting US journalists needed to be seen in the context of Chinese officials seeking to shape media narratives, which they have long viewed as being dominated by anti-Chinese views, as well as to exude strength.

"The retaliation follows earlier practices in China but steps them up in the context of deteriorating US-China diplomatic relations," he said. "Expelling journalists isn't primarily about journalism. It is a message both to the Donald Trump administration and to domestic audiences that China won't be bullied."

One of the American correspondents who is among the latest expulsions said many had anticipated Beijing would retaliate against Washington's restrictions on Chinese state media, but the action taken was "pretty much unprecedented".

"We're in the media business because we see the value in the flow of information," the reporter said. "This doesn't improve that situation at all."

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