While the world is focusing on containing the spread of the Wuhan virus, communist China declared the largest expulsion of American reporters this week, further escalating a media war with the United States.
On March 18, communist China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it would revoke the press credentials of all U.S. nationals working for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post. About a dozen American reporters will have to leave China, and won’t be allowed to report in Hong Kong and Macau. The world hasn’t seen such a level of expulsion of foreign journalists from communist China since 1949.
Beijing also commanded the three named newspapers, as well as Voice of America and Time magazine, to submit all information about all their staff, finances, operations, and real estate in China to Chinese authorities. Beijing explained that such extraordinary measures are “entirely necessary and reciprocal” to the “unreasonable oppression” Washington has imposed on communist China’s state media in the United States.
Communist China Harasses Journalists
Foreign journalists, including Americans, have reported increasing harassment from Beijing in recent years. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China released a report in 2018 that showed 40 percent of its members saying the reporting conditions in China had been getting worse. These foreign journalists said they had been followed, arrested, “roughed up,” and threatened with expulsion. Beijing frequently uses visa and press credentials to threaten foreign journalists not to report on what Beijing deems “sensitive topics,” such as the internment of Uyghur Muslims.
According to this FCCC report, local authorities detained and questioned Globe and Mail journalist Nathan VanderKlippe, confiscating his laptop after he investigated the Uyghurs’ internment in Xinjiang. Plainclothes police officers roughed up a BBC News crew in Hunan. The crew’s video equipment was damaged, but the crew had to sign a statement to “confess” their “bad” behaviors.
Cédric Alviani, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ East Asia bureau, said that while Beijing harasses foreign journalists on China’s soil, “the regime does its best to exploit the freedom available to journalists in democratic countries in order to develop its propaganda network there.” For example, the New York Times and Washington Post have for years helped spread communist China propaganda by delivering to all of their subscribers a special advertising supplement called China Watch, which is produced by China Daily, a newspaper owned by communist China.
Out of the fear of Beijing’s growing economic and military power, no other foreign government has taken any action to address either Beijing’s aggressive propaganda campaign on their soil or the harassment foreign journalists have to endure in China. The Trump administration is the first to do something about it.
Trump Administration Takes Action Against Beijing
On Feb. 18, 2020, the U.S. State Department identified five Chinese state-owned media outlets, including the state news agency Xinhua, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily, and Hai Tian Development USA (a U.S.-based company that distributes People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party), as “foreign mission[s] under the Foreign Missions Act, which is to say that they are ‘substantially owned or effectively controlled by a foreign government.’”
The “foreign mission” designation will not curtail these outlets’ reporting activities. Employees of these five organizations will simply have to register with the U.S. State Department the same way employees of foreign embassies do. The Trump administration took this measure to combat the spread of Beijing’s propaganda through these media outlets in the United States, and hoped Beijing would loosen its control on U.S. diplomats and journalists.
On Feb. 19, Beijing responded by expelling three Wall Street Journal reporters based in Beijing, blaming the Journal for a supposedly “racist” op-ed headline. On March 2, U.S. State Department officials imposed a personnel cap on four Chinese state-owned media companies, Xinhua News Agency, China Radio International, China Global Television Network, and China Daily, demanding they reduce their Chinese employees in the United States from 160 to 100 by March 13.
That decision led to Beijing’s most recent announcement of the expulsion of more than a dozen U.S. journalists from China on March 18. Beijing blames the United States for kicking off a media war, vowing that more retaliations are on the way.
Beijing Uses Media to Spread Wuhan Virus Lies
There are several explanations as to why Beijing is taking such combative actions over media matters now. A virus that originated in China is quickly spreading around the globe, threatening people’s livelihoods and the global economy. Because of courageous Chinese truth-tellers and foreign journalists, the rest of the world learned the pandemic could have been avoided had Beijing not suppressed early whistleblowers and taken proper actions to inform its own people and the rest of the world.
Not wanting to be blamed for the pandemic, Beijing has worked hard in recent weeks to control the message, invent a new narrative, and spread false information. Beijing now claims the virus didn’t originate in China but was created by the U.S. military.
In this pandemic fight, Beijing casts itself as the hero that sacrificed a great deal to buy the rest of the world time to cope. Beijing also claims the situation in China has gotten better and that somehow the outbreak should cement Beijing’s global leadership role. “Let us show you how we did it,” Beijing tells the rest of the world.
We all know information supplied by Beijing is highly questionable. China’s domestic media only reports what Beijing wants them to say. Chinese citizens who tried to tell the truth have been ruthlessly silenced one by one, and more so recently.
Foreign journalists in China have played an unequivocally important role in verifying information on the ground and sharing facts to the rest of the world. By expelling U.S. journalists from China in this critical moment, Beijing will further weaken the foreign press presence and intimidate other foreign journalists from telling the truth about communist China.
In the Media War, Chinese People Suffer Most
Additionally, in the past, foreign journalists who were expelled from mainland China could still conduct reporting in Hong Kong, as the city enjoys a separate and independent judicial system from the mainland under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework.
However, Beijing’s latest announcement will bar these foreign journalists from reporting in Hong Kong, a move many say will enable Beijing to assert greater control over the city in spite of the ongoing pro-democracy protests that began last summer. Hong Kong lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching called Beijing’s action “a clear violation of the Basic Law, which says we are supposed to look after our own immigration matters. But now, it is all according to Beijing’s orders.”
Without a doubt, Beijing views its media war with the United States as having only upsides: China gets rid of foreign journalists it doesn’t like, intimidates those that remain behind, allows the regime to firmly control and spread only the narratives it desires, shifts blame onto others more easily, and increases control over Hong Kong. Beijing will continue to fight this media war aggressively as long as it doesn’t see any downsides.
The biggest victims in this media war are the Chinese people. Josh Chin, one of the three Wall Street Journal reporters expelled from China in February, tweeted that when local Chinese officials in Xinjiang detained him last year, an official secretly told him, “I am glad that the foreign media is in China. Otherwise, how else would we know what’s going on here?” What this official said was sad but true.
Without free press in communist China, Chinese people have to rely on foreign media to learn what’s really going on in their own country. Foreign media is also the only platform some Chinese have to make their voices heard and to press for change inside China. The Chinese people have already suffered the most during the coronavirus pandemic. If foreign media is also being silenced now, the Chinese people will lose their access to truth and sink even further into informational darkness.
The final outcome of the U.S.-China media war is not only consequential to the Sino-U.S. relationship, but also is important to the rest of the world. The Trump administration must continue to push back against Beijing’s disinformation and advocate for free press in China, for both domestic and foreign media. One thing we learned the past several weeks is that free press and freedom of expression inside China is essential to all of our health and survival.