The strategic significance of journalist expulsions by US and China

The strategic significance of journalist expulsions by US and China


Both countries would be wise to remember that no hostility lasts forever, as demonstrated by the gradual improvement in China’s relations with (and media coverage of) Japan.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He during a signing ceremony for “phase one” of the U.S.-China trade agreement in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 15, 2020 / (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

In mid-March 2011, I met in Beijing with the Israeli ambassador to China and a very senior Chinese media editor. This was after a major earthquake and tsunami on March 11 caused damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and as the two sessions – the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) – drew to a close.

The editor was telling us how he and other CPPCC delegates were listening anxiously to then-Chinese premier Wen Jiabao at the closing press conference on March 14.

“We were hoping to hear the premier express sympathy with the Japanese people” after the nuclear disaster, the editor said. (At the time, Wen did extend condolences to Japan and offered to send help).

The year 2011 was a bad one for China-Japan relations, with angry anti-Japanese protests in Beijing and studios churning out anti-Japanese movies by the hundreds. So Wen’s statement was a mildly bold move.
In the following years, China-Japan ties would sink further still, until being resuscitated by US President Trump’s “trade war” against China. Still, the aforementioned incident offers a lesson for US-China relations, especially for the role of media.

In recent months, China and the US engaged in an unprecedented series of tit-for-tat expulsions of journalists, hammering the relationship to a nadir not seen in decades, and reflecting the breakdown of trust between the strategic rivals exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

After the Trump administration identified five Chinese government-owned media outlets as foreign missions, and after The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion essay February 3 titled, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” China revoked the credentials of three WSJ reporters, the first time that China had expelled a credentialed foreign correspondent since 1998.

In recent years, pressured by an increasingly nationalistic public, China has taken to shortening the lengths of journalist visas or withholding them altogether as retaliation against critical coverage by foreign media, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. In retaliation, the US on March 2 cut the quota the five media outlets allowed to employ to a maximum 100 Chinese nationals, effectively expelling 60 reporters.

China’s next move was unfortunate but predictable. On March 18, the Foreign Ministry said that US journalists working with The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post whose press credentials were due to expire before the end of 2020, would be required to hand back their press cards, effectively forcing a dozen or more reporters to leave the country.

China also revoked the permits of at least six Chinese nationals employed at foreign media as assistants. Chinese nationals aren’t allowed to work for foreign media as journalists, but in reality, Chinese staffers at foreign media bureaus conduct important journalistic work, providing crucial language skills and cultural nuance to foreign reporters.

FOREIGN OUTLETS that send journalists to China are those whose readers are interested in a more nuanced perspective that can only be obtained on the ground. China is acutely aware of the advantage possessed by foreign, especially Anglophone media, and Xi Jinping has urged the Chinese media to “tell China’s story well” in an effort to boost its global image. In the absence of experienced American journalists on the ground, the China story will be shredded in the “Washington spin cycle,” as The New York Times put it.

Some say China feels Western media has outlived its usefulness. That is unlikely. Rather, the increasing assertiveness of Chinese diplomacy indicates the enormous public pressure on the Chinese government. As Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said on March 18, “China is compelled to make such countermeasures.”

Western diplomats were taken aback on March 12, when another Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, tweeted a claim that the US military might have brought the coronavirus to Wuhan. In fact, both sides peddle conspiracy theories on the origin of the virus, but it is clear Zhao enjoys strong support from the Chinese public.

Some in China are critical of this more strident tone. Mme. Fu Ying, former vice foreign minister and one of China’s most astute diplomats, published an op-ed on April 2 in the People’s Daily, the official publication of the Chinese Communist Party, calling for greater sophistication. As Fu, who is currently vice-chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress put it, to convincingly tell China’s story to foreign publics, there is a need for a more diversified approach.

THE US IS also a loser in this “race to the bottom.” By simply casting Chinese reporters as “propagandists,” the US misses an opportunity to influence China directly. Despite the professional straitjacket imposed on them by the state, Chinese journalists can actually act as an important bridge between the US and China.

It is true that Chinese reporters must report largely within party-proscribed limits, and with the US-China bilateral ties in tatters, the media simply reflect the realities of the relationship. But even Chinese journalists have agency, and can write non-political stories that reflect empathy. The nearly 370,000 Chinese students currently enrolled in the US attest to the limits of “Chinese propaganda.”

Israel’s example can be illuminating. China has broad economic and energy interests in the Middle East, so the Chinese narrative prioritizes relationships with the Arab and Muslim world. Chinese media frequently criticize Israel’s position on Palestine, but Chinese journalists based in Israel also write sympathetic stories about regular people caught in the conflict on both sides of the divide, in addition to numerous positive articles about Israeli innovation. Most importantly, they have the opportunity to directly interact with Israel’s government and society.

The Trump administration also inveighed against Chinese media’s involvement in intelligence operations in the US. Quite different from spying, China does have an internal system of reporting called neican, by which Chinese journalists write reports for internal publication on subjects deemed too sensitive for public consumption and intended for the eyes of the senior leadership only.

For example, during the tense days of demonstrations in Hong Kong in the summer of 2019, with Chinese troops conducting anti-riot exercises across the border in Shenzhen, it was practically certain that Chinese journalists were quietly sounding their DC sources for a potential US reaction to an escalation in Hong Kong. This would have provided a real-time corrective for Chinese policymakers.

With the breakdown of trust over the origins of COVID-19, and the approaching US presidential elections, journalist expulsions will likely not be the last counterproductive moves the US and China make. Both countries would be wise to remember that no hostility lasts forever, as demonstrated by the gradual improvement in China’s relations with (and media coverage of) Japan.

The writer is founding director of Israel’s Chinese Media Center at the College of Management Academic Studies, and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

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