Late last month, after nine years in China, BBC Beijing correspondent John Sudworth clandestinely left with his family for Taiwan. His move followed a propaganda campaign against him for his coverage of the origins of COVID-19 and of a crackdown on Muslim minorities.
The next day, the Foreign Ministry of China claimed to be unaware Sudworth was under any threat. But that same day, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)–controlled Global Times said Sudworth “may be sued by individuals in Xinjiang over his slanderous reports.” The threat here is obvious: The Chinese court is fully run by the CCP.
Sudworth’s treatment is hardly unique. Indeed, the CCP has a long and thorough history of monitoring and tracking foreign journalists reporting in China. Even 2020, the year the coronavirus emerged from and peaked in China, was no exception. The state’s surveillance system, used to monitor and track the spread of the coronavirus, was also effective at tracking foreign journalists who covered events as they unfolded.
So it’s not surprising that, for the third consecutive year, a survey conducted by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) has revealed that working conditions for reporters did not improve in any way. In 2020, just as the FCCC reported in 2019, foreign journalists, their Chinese colleagues, and all those whom they tried to interview were subject to harassment, intimidation, and expulsion. The scrutiny was particularly intense because of the CCP’s desire to control how the coronavirus was covered, and in response to early, widespread coverage of popular protests over the inept handling of the pandemic by state authorities in Wuhan and other cities in January–February 2020. This reaction led to a complete clampdown on the media, with red lines drawn on how and where to report on the pandemic.
And it led to the Chinese state’s using nearly every weapon in its armory against journalists. Where it was found possible, media persons were even expelled from the country, chilled to escape, as in the most recent case of Sudworth. Notably, on March 28, 2020, China closed its borders to holders of existing visas. While it reinstated travel privileges gradually, journalists remained out of this privilege. As a result, 21 percent of the respondents of the FCCC survey found themselves locked out of China.
The standard operating procedure of the Chinese state has been to use “national security investigations” to prevent reporters from leaving China, or not renewing visas and/or expelling them, depending on individual cases. The 2020 FCCC report reveals that as many as 18 foreign correspondents from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post were subject to expulsion. As expected, Australian and American journalists were in the line of fire last year, because both countries took a hard line on China over its responsibility for the origin and spread of the coronavirus.
Australia came in for special attention when, in the second half of 2020, police and intelligence officials came to the homes of Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Beijing and Michael Smith working for the Australian Financial Review in Shanghai. They were questioned about Australian business journalist Cheng Li, who had been working for CGTN, the official state broadcaster, and informed that they could not leave China, as they were said to be under investigation. Cheng Li was arrested in August 2020 for allegedly passing on state secrets abroad.
Not widely reported was the fact that the two Australian journalists sheltered in the Australian Embassy for five days, after brief interrogation by state authorities, and only then were allowed to leave China. The exit ban on foreign journalists was unprecedented. It is evidence of Chinese sensitivity toward foreign reporting, especially on the spread of the coronavirus inside China. One result of this incident was that Australia withdrew all its reporters from China. More recently, in December 2020, Haze Fan, a Chinese national working for Bloomberg News, was detained and questioned. No reasons were given for this sudden decision and no information is available on the journalist. Within China, the narrative promoted was that Chinese journalists and those interviewed were “actors paid by foreign intelligence agencies” and therefore could justifiably be detained.
When not detaining or expelling journalists outright, the state also imposed restrictions on movements and obstructed travel within China, creatin g major problems for media personnel. Forty-two percent of FCCC survey respondents said they were told to leave a place or denied access to health facilities, even when they presented no risk. Significantly, 17 percent of those surveyed expressed apprehension that tracking apps could have been used by state agencies as surveillance tools, which affected their reporting.
But the coronavirus was not the Chinese Communist Party’s only motive for censorship. It also tried to cover up developments in Xinjiang province. All 18 FCCC respondents surveyed who tried to report on Xinjiang faced restrictions. Of these reporters, twelve were visibly followed, denied access to public places, and forced to delete what they had recorded. The same pattern was apparent in reporting on Tibet and Inner Mongolia.
Chinese nationals working for foreign media in the PRC bore the brunt of state repression in 2020. Authorities regularly interrogated them, in many cases forcing them to resign and in some cases putting them under detention. This created major staffing problems for foreign media operating in China. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, started the year with 15 correspondents but was down to four by the middle of the year. In 2019, the FCCC report had mentioned the weaponizing of visas by China as a tool to harass foreign media persons. In 2020, the government refused to issue press cards for long periods, instead providing a two- to three-months temporary permit in the form of letters that had to be renewed. Consequently, journalists from Japan, the U.S., the U.K., and Italy were left in limbo without accreditation. Further, at least 13 correspondents received accreditation for six months or less, and in some cases only for one month. China even worked to control reporting on the pandemic overseas, in and through Chinese missions and embassies overseas, attempting to restrict specific media organizations.
As China prepares to host the Winter Olympic Games in 2022, one can anticipate a greater level of scrutiny toward media coverage of the nation by foreign journalists in 2021. Once upon a time, President Xi Jinping is reported to have said that China “welcomed foreign journalists to explore” the country. Obviously, he wants foreign correspondents to become tourists in China and not report on happenings, particularly negative developments that would tarnish the image of the “core” leader, as he likes to be called, in China. Whatever press freedom there may have once been in China seems likely only to get weaker.