These days, foreign journalists are facing unprecedented challenges in China.
A March report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) finds that in 2019, “82% of [foreign] reporters [in China] experienced interference or harassment or violence while reporting. . . . 43% said digital/physical surveillance affected reporting. And 70% reported interviews cancelled due to actions taken by Chinese authorities.” The FCCC also finds that Chinese authorities continue to restrict foreign journalists’ access to certain parts of China, including Xinjiang, where millions of Uighur Muslims languish in internment camps. The most striking finding of the report, however, is that not even a single foreign journalist said working conditions in China had improved from 2018 to 2019.
It seems that this state of affairs has only gotten worse in 2020. Just this week, the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield published a story about the difficulties she’d faced as a foreign reporter in China. “Reporting in China increasingly feels like reporting in North Korea,” she tweeted. Beijing has expelled around 17 foreign journalists this year, including 15 Americans, and is threatening to expel more. Chinese authorities also continue to punish some foreign journalists by refusing to renew their visas.
In August, Cheng Lei, an Australian citizen of Chinese descent who worked for the state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN), was detained by Chinese authorities. No charges were filed, and Cheng simply “disappeared.” China’s foreign ministry waited until early September to announce that she was suspected of “criminal activity endangering China’s national security.” Her family and friends still do not know her whereabouts, and it is unclear if she has any legal representation.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s announcement of Cheng’s detention came after the Australian government was forced to mount a frantic mission to extricate the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s (AFR) Mike Smith from the country. Both had been questioned by Chinese authorities regarding their dealings with Cheng, and both sought help from the Australian consulate. They were allowed to leave China only after a five-day diplomatic standoff. Birtles’s former boss, the ex-ABC China bureau chief Matthew Carney, recently disclosed the threats and interrogations that he and his family, including his 14-year-old daughter, had to endure from Chinese authorities back in 2018, which eventually led them to leave the country, too.
Early this month, a Los Angeles Times reporter was detained by Chinese police in Inner Mongolia while investigating the central government’s push to teach Mongolian children key curriculums in Mandarin rather than Mongolian. Many parents and students have been protesting that effort, which they view as Beijing’s latest attempt to erase their cultural identity. The Times reporter said plainclothes men “took her to a police station, where she was interrogated and separated from her belongings, despite identifying herself as an accredited journalist. She was not allowed to call the U.S. Embassy; one officer grabbed her throat with both hands and pushed her into a cell.”
Beijing’s treatment of foreign journalists is appalling. But surprisingly, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, for decades, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) welcomed foreign journalists when it found them to be of use in helping achieve its strategic policy goals.
The most famous example of this phenomenon was American journalist Edgar Snow. In the 1930s, Snow visited the CCP’s stronghold in the Chinese countryside and interviewed its leaders, including Mao Zedong. Back then, the People’s Liberation Army was no more than a ragtag bunch of poorly fed, ill-equipped guerrilla fighters. Mao was dismissed by the ruling Nationalist Party as a “bandit,” and he was virtually unknown to the West. Mao recognized the help that Snow could provide in solving that problem. He granted Snow access that was unavailable to any Chinese journalist and charmed the American. Snow, who was somewhat naive and ideologically left-leaning, fell for Mao’s charisma. Mao asked that the texts of Snow’s interviews be translated from English back to Chinese so he could “correct any inaccuracies” prior to the publication, and Snow granted him his wish.
The final output was Snow’s 1937 book, Red Star Over China, which presented Mao as a great leader who was candid, thoughtful, and funny. It described the goal of the Communist revolution as the creation of a new China that would be egalitarian and democratic. Nowhere did it mention Mao’s brutal purge of a rival faction within the Communist Party, which ended with the arrest of over 100 party members and the execution of more than a dozen. The purge was an early indication of Mao’s ruthlessness in quashing dissent, and there would be many more like it to come.
Unfortunately, the inaccurate portrait painted by Snow’s book cast Mao and the Communists in such a positive light that it won them many domestic and international supporters. This, in turn, set a precedent. Recognizing the propaganda value that Snow had provided, Mao invited him back to China several more times over the next three-plus decades. Each time, he manipulated Snow into serving as his mouthpiece for domestic and international audiences.
After Mao’s death, a succession of Chinese Communist Party leaders followed the same template, welcoming foreign journalists to China as the regime launched its campaign of economic reform and opened up to the rest of the world. These leaders recognized that they needed the foreign press to tell stories about China, and sure enough, the resulting stories helped attract badly needed foreign investment and tourism to boost the country’s economy.
In a country where corruption is rampant and justice is whatever local authorities say it is, many Chinese people have come to believe that the fastest way to get their grievances heard and resolved is through reporting by journalists, especially foreign journalists. As Yuan Yang, the Financial Times’s deputy Beijing bureau chief, has noted, “Sometimes it is not the coverage itself, but the mere appearance of a foreign journalist on the scene, that gets officials to start listening intently to their problems.”
Sadly, even that means of getting authorities’ attention is increasingly being closed off by China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, who demands absolute loyalty from all corners of China including the media. Unlike his predecessors, Xi doesn’t see foreign media as a friend or a useful tool, but rather as a threat to the narratives advanced by his propaganda and an obstacle to his goal of building a new, China-centric world order. Especially after the coronavirus outbreak, Xi has needed an obedient media to tell a story of Chinese success under his leadership, which has only increased his incentive to keep a tight leash on critical reporting.
Xi seems to believe that China is now wealthy, powerful, and resourceful enough that it no longer needs the prestige that foreign media outlets once lent it; state media can tell the stories he wants told both at home and abroad. Since Xi doesn’t see foreign journalists as useful to his own strategic objectives, Chinese authorities have intensified their attacks on foreign journalists. If any informed observer had any remaining doubts about the true nature of the Chinese regime, this crackdown should have dispelled them.